When Nout Daro needs to escape the stresses of city life, he jumps on his Yamaha Virago and heads into Cambodia’s remote forests and mountains to seek solitude – and often the inspiration for his next artwork.
“I love taking motorbike trips into the countryside to camp in the forest or mountains,” the 32-year-old artist said, adding it was these trips that shaped his abstract techniques and reoccurring themes of nature that dominate his current work. Previously, he dabbled in the more realistic style of painting frequently found across Cambodia.
“I’d see leaves falling from trees and forming piles. If I stared at them, I’d see the leaves moving and forming shapes of animals and people. It felt like they had spirits inside them. I combine this with my imagination to come up with my work.”
Born in Kandal province, Daro started learning art at the age of 13 and was immediately hooked. However, it wasn’t an easy career path to pursue, with his parents strongly objecting. Instead, they wanted him to become a businessman.
“My family didn’t like me painting. They thought being an artist wasn't a good way to earn money. They told me, if I want to be a rich man, I can’t do art. It was very hard for me because, despite this, I wanted to carry on,” he recalled from his home, which doubles up as a studio and gallery on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
Spurred on by his uncle – an aspiring artist whose family forced him down another career path – Daro went on to study fine art at the Secondary School for Fine Arts before graduating from the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in 2018 with a Bachelor’s degree in painting and sculpture.
For his final-year project, he crafted a giant elephant’s head from old motorbike parts. This turned out to be a pivotal point in his career path, and the moment he started receiving support from his parents. The art piece remains on show at RUFA today.
“I sold my first artwork to a customer and used the money to make a big sculpture of an elephant’s head for my final-year assignment to complete my degree,” he said. “Normally students take money from their families to fund this assignment, but I didn’t. From that day, my family saw that I could earn money and they were happy. Now they support me.”
While Daro’s original works were inspired by his surroundings and he adapted a more realistic style, the last few years have seen him steer toward abstract forms of art. This is evident from a glance at his studio walls, which are adorned with powerful paintings of buffalos, cows, and mythical minotaurs. A closer look reveals each of the images comprises drawings of the delicate leaves that enchant Daro when he’s camping; the leaves almost serving as a form of pointillism.
“I bring a lot of themes of nature, wildlife, and the environment into my art,” Daro said, as he points to ‘Seeker’, a large close-up painting of part of an elephant’s face. Reflected in its eye is a lake dotted with lotus flowers.
In another, a buffalo has its leg trapped in a discarded facemask. In one corner a human hand is gripped around a dripping tap. “This shows that every problem in nature derives from humans. The mask represents trash and the hand on the tap shows humans have the power to control water,” he said.
“Nature and animals depend on people and if we continue to destroy nature, it’s gone. When I go on my trips, I see a lot of trash that people put there, and that impacts animals and nature, and destroys the environment.”
“Here, the elephant has run out of water and is trying to find more. You can see the lake reflected in his eye, so he’s lucky. He’s found the gold. Water is important for everyone. Humans, nature, wildlife. But it can be scarce. If we have water, we have life. Even when I go on my trips to the forest and mountains, when I find a water source, I set up camp there,” he said, adding his favourite place to visit is Phnom Aural in the Cardamoms.
His work recently featured alongside art from photographers, NGO workers, students, indigenous community representatives, and journalists in ‘Pray for Prey’. The exhibition at Phnom Penh’s future Friends Factory aimed to throw the spotlight on the current environmental issues threatening nature.
Despite Daro having exhibited his work at the majority of Cambodia’s most prominent galleries, he said a major hurdle is connecting with local buyers. However, this is an element he is hoping to change.
“Foreigners like my work but I’ve not sold so many paintings to Cambodian customers. Locals who have, buy my realistic works and not the abstract. I hope in the future more Cambodians will appreciate and come to love abstract art and we will have more support from Khmer customers.”
Daro let out a coy smile as he shared his ambition to do for contemporary Khmer art what Thoeun Theara has done for Cambodian boxing. In December, Theara became the first Cambodian boxer to win the Thai King’s Trophy, returning to home soil a national hero.
“Before this, hardly anyone even knew his name,” Daro said. “When he got success in Thailand, he came home and now everyone knows his name, and more people are interested in Kun Khmer. I want to do this with art. I want my work shown internationally so that the world knows about Cambodian art and artists. Then Cambodian people will take pride and start to love and support the local art scene.”
Daro’s work can be seen at The Gallerist - Contemporary Art Gallery on Street 240, Phnom Penh.