Currently at The Plantation is a new exhibition, Eyes of Cranes, by Chhan Dina. Unfortunately, the November 28 community event forced cancellation of the opening, but the show has gone on, and you can visit, taking appropriate precautions, daily.
Like much of her recent work, Dina’s paintings on display are inspired by the natural environment. “Wherever I go I always look around me, especially at the trees,” she says. “Young artists often only think about beauty, to make a nice painting. A water buffalo in the sunset at Angkor Wat. And of course art work can be beautiful, but it needs to have some meaning. I may work on the same ideas for many years, I keep coming back to the same themes and subjects, but I never get bored.
There has been a gradual movement in Dina’s work from capturing humans in activity and in family, over to the natural world, and the same analogous relationships. “I worked at Friends International, Mith Samlanh, for many years, and I worked with a lot of street kids, and painted a lot of street kids.” She sees the change as slight. “Life as a bird is very family-oriented. They build the nest, they have their babies and feed them, protect them. When first went to Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, it changed my life. I felt different. I saw things in my that I had never seen before. I was particularly inspired by cranes. The light, the reflections, can create something unique.”
After starting small, Dina is now an established artist in Phnom Penh. “I was 13 years old when I started to draw. At 17, 18, I became an artist, I had an exhibition at Java Café, people bought my work. I gave up for a while, maybe one year, then I came back. I did whatever I wanted to do, because of my youth and freedom. I kept on going, painting, painting, I like it, because this is what I can do. And this is what I want to share to young people in Cambodia – to be without art is to have nothing. It’s something you can share about your own country, your own self. Can you imagine what life would look like without art, without music?”
For all the nature painting, Dina’s work is more impressionistic and abstract than naturalist. “My teacher said paint from your imagination, add something, make it different. He said ‘I want to see your brain make something bigger. First I said, ‘Are you crazy?’ Now I know. You don’t have to paint just what you see, you can paint your own version. Think about Salvador Dali – do something strange! Why does the animal have such long legs? Why are there stairs going into the sky? You can do whatever you want in your imagination.”
Dina sees herself as part of a continuum of centuries of art in Cambodia. “Angkor Wat inspires me so much, I’m never tired of that. I see cranes and other carved into the temple walls. Those generations of artists and my generation are connected. I am proud to be an artist, and I am proud of my country. We have something very special. I love sculpture, and I see the Angkor Wat sculpture – if a take a photo you will forget, but when you see it and remember it, you will never forget. The Angkor Wat smile has teeth, the apsaras have different faces – not just one artist or two artists, maybe hundreds or thousands of artists at work. I’m so proud of the art of Cambodia.”
However it troubles her that artists in Cambodia are often thought of as low status. “Some Cambodian people think that art is nothing. Don’t care about art, but care about expensive handbags, expensive sunglasses. But who designs the bags and the glasses? Artists. So how do we get people to respect art? When I joined Cambodian Living Arts for one year, I researched art and culture in Cambodia, I went to Thailand, Vietnam, and different places, to see art in museums and galleries. I’ve also been to museums in Britain and the Netherlands. I wondered is it local people or tourists who visit? In Cambodia, only expats buy the art work and place a good value on art. But there is a lack of support for artists in Cambodia. Who is going to buy?”
Dina is a prolific artist, with an enthusiasm to try different media and styles. “I have no patience when I paint. I always want to be finished, I can’t wait to be finished. But sometimes it takes time. And sometimes I paint two at the same time, so that when I cannot move forward because it needs to dry I can move to another one. Then I break for a while, come back and look at the first and see what new perspective I can bring.
“When I use ink or I use oil, the results are completely different. Working in oil takes a long time, while working in ink – a few days and done. So the techniques are different. My ink work is different from others who have been working in ink for many years, so my approach creates something new.”
So as the artist matures, the more you look the more you see? “Exactly!”
Eyes of Cranes runs until January 4.