“It was difficult being a female artist. When I started, there was a lot of resistance. People would ask, “Why is a girl studying art?”, says Sreymao Sao of when she first studied art at NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang at the age of 14.
However, she was one of the lucky ones. “I was feeling lost and my father was a primary school teacher [in a refugee camp]. He introduced me to Phare and said I should learn to draw and paint. Not a lot of families let their daughters study art then. I had many friends who loved art so much and had to lie to their parents to study,” Sreymao recalls.
After studying at Phare, Sreymao doubted her talents as an artist and saw no future. Instead, she sought paid work as a waitress. “I didn’t feel talented enough as an artist, I wasn’t confident, so I looked for other work,” says Sreymao, who was born in the Site 2 refugee camp on the Thai border in the mid-1980s.
In 2005, a friend said a Siem Reap-based NGO was looking for an artist to paint a wall mural advocating environmental education. “I was so happy but scared I wouldn’t be able to do it,” Sreymao recalls. “I convinced myself that if I struggled, I will get better at art. I dared to do it and surprised myself.”
This introduced Sreymao to the power of visual art. She went on to work as a consultant designing environmentally educational visual tools to be delivered in schools nationwide.
“But I still didn’t go back to my own art,” she says. “I didn’t see then how important it is to be an artist. I thought to be a human you create other opportunities and work with communities to see what they need. I was so happy to be able to create tools for education but kept looking for what I wanted.”
It wasn’t until 2016, when Sreymao attended Sa Sa Art Projects’ Contemporary Art Class, that her mindset shifted and she saw the role art can play in society.
“At a young age, I had a lot of confusion. I saw many artists just drawing and painting things to sell with no meaning. I asked myself, “Do I want to be like that?” No, I want to use art to provide something to society, not just a picture to hang on your wall. At the Sa Sa workshop, I realised there are a lot of ways you can use art to represent your voice.”
Sreymao has gone on to thrive in the art world, showcasing her work across the world. The multidisciplinary artist’s skill set spans the spectrum, from illustrations, digital drawings and photography, to painting, sculpture, and performance.
She uses each to explore Cambodia’s evolving rural and urban landscapes, memory, and a raft of social and environmental issues. This year saw her work as the illustrator for US journalist Abby Seiff’s book, ‘Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia’.
Sreymao’s art can also currently be seen in ‘Shaking Land and Water’ at Singapore’s Esplanade Jendela. The exhibition features work by six Cambodian and Singaporean artists. Additionally, ‘Sampot Sor’ (White Skirt) shows at Phnom Penh’s Silapak Trotchaek Pneik gallery until November 9. Sreymao is also preparing for the launch of her collaborative exhibition with Jean-Baptiste Phou, ‘By A Thread’, at Java Creative Café in Toul Tom Poung. This forms part of the Photo Phnom Penh festival.
In ‘Sampot Sor’, Sreymao tackles the issues many women in Asia face in today’s society and their growing strength to fight back.
“I called it White Skirt because there are a lot of proverbs that compare women to white cloth,” she says. “If it has dirt on it, it is stained and will never be clean. In my work, I try to show the experiences of myself and my female friends, who face harassment and are treated badly. At the same time, we are building ourselves to be stronger. We are standing on our own feet and fighting back.”
In ‘By a Thread’, Sreymao and Jean-Baptiste collaboratively explore communication and grief through a poignant combination of film, photography, installation and performance. Drawing inspiration from the film, ‘My Mother’s Tongue’, the exhibit takes the audience on an emotional journey that examines loneliness while creating space for connection and understanding.
“We met on the islands and when he told me about his ideas, I was excited to do something experimental. During Covid, I was away from my parents and was looking for a way to connect with the people I love, so this seemed like the perfect medium,” Sreymao says.
Reflecting on her years as a contemporary female artist, Sreymao says she has seen a lot of change. “I can see a lot of young artists emerging, including many girls,” she says. “And more people today understand contemporary art and its role in society. This is exciting to see.”
‘By a Thread’ opens at Java Creative Café in Toul Tom Poung on October 30 at 4pm and runs until November 27. It forms part of Photo Phnom Penh’s collection of exhibitions at various venues throughout the city.