A group of Department of Media and Communication (DMC) students at the Royal University of Phnom Penh are hosting an exhibition "Art of Drag", with the goal of changing perceptions surrounding drag queens.
Through the exhibition, the third-year students aim to introduce the art form of drag queens, promote drag queen performances, and change people's perspectives about them.
It will take place at Meta House from May 17 to June 5 under five themes with varying meanings, following the trending TikTok song "One More Hour", which narrates the story of a drag queen. The event organziers are Ly Socheat, Sok Chanlinda, Chamroeun Peuvsreyneang, and Jak Sangchana.
In addition, the exhibition was also supported by SafeSpaceBTB. A SafespaceBTB representative, Morn Vicchun said that it is important to support young Khmer artists. However, he remarked that it will not happen without the support from the audience.
“We don't do this alone. We do it thanks to many people including artists, Metahouse, donors, and everyone here, because art without audiences is nothing,” he said. “As our campaign says, together we are stronger to fight against discrimination of any kind.”
The themes are: Whatever I’ve done, I did it for love; I did it for fame; I did it for fun; and I couldn't get enough of it. Each theme will include four to five images that seek to show drag queens backstage, including makeup and dressing up, their passion, and their performance.
Socheat said that he chose to capture photos of a drag queen without having any interest in the subject at first, but after that, he was keen to learn more.
Before embarking on this project, he used to watch drag queens on television and observe their performances. He noticed a number of people watching them, but he did not understand what they were doing and questioned it whenever he saw them.
"Is it also an art form?" he questioned at first. “Then, I began to research and comprehend it. After doing the research, I became interested in it. This is the opportunity for me to learn more about it, so I decided to pitch it to my lecturer.”
The project allowed him to connect with the artists involved in drag and have a better understanding of it, he added.
However, his team's journey in capturing the photos did not end without challenges. He said that these challenges were captured without knowing what they were, and he considered this a serious mistake.
“While shooting, the drag queen also explained to me about it. It allowed me to understand it more. Anyone can be a drag queen,” he said. “It’s not the identity of someone. But it’s an art form that is unique.”
Chanlinda said that as her team had no experience shooting drag queens, they did not know how to hype up the drag queen or accompany her while shooting, which was a challenge for them.
"We don't know how to give feedback while shooting. Mostly, a drag queen prepares by herself. So, she played an important role in making things easier for us,” she told Kiripost. “However, I want to give credit to my senior, MengChheang, for giving feedback during the shoot."
Despite getting comments that it would be inappropriate to showcase, Chanlinda said that she had no doubts about doing it. “It pushed us to want to do it more and to prove it,” she said.
Peuvsreyneang also said that she was aware of criticism from others before making her decision to do the exhibition. However, after getting comments from her mentor, her team attempted to downplay it.
“I used to think it was too revealing and inappropriate for school, but after getting feedback from my mentor, we tried to minimize the project and make it acceptable in every environment; not too much and not too little,” the media student said.
After shooting the drag queen, they discovered her backstage, which was eye-opening for them. They began to notice that the drag queen not only had a talent for performance but also for dressing up and applying makeup.
“When they do it, it looks like a flower. It’s beautiful. A lot of talent is hidden in the artist that I’ve never noticed. Every time I see it, I think it's a man dressed up like a woman,” Socheat said. “But when I go deeper into it, it’s really eye-opening for me.”
Socheat said that one thing he has learned about drag culture is that it is all about exaggeration. They may wear more makeup than usual. In addition, it is an art form that is all about exaggerating the norm and making oneself look unique.
“They are not only wearing makeup, they also need to wear heels to make themselves completely different from normal,” he said. “After dressing up, they will be a completely different person.”
The DMC student team hopes that the exhibition will help people to understand drag queens better and see them as artists. They also hope that it will inspire other people to create their own art.