Artworks & Human

Using Art to Grow Wings and “Escape the Chaos”

Leading Cambodian artist Leang Seckon speaks with Kiripost about a lifetime of war, finding peace and how he found his love of art as a buffalo boy
Leang Seckon reacts during interview at his studio in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Leang Seckon reacts during interview at his studio in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

He endured war as a baby inside his mother’s womb as she searched for trenches to shelter in from the air strikes. Now, with the war in Ukraine, among many other uncertainties, prominent contemporary artist Leang Seckon is seeking wings to fly to another planet and escape the world’s chaos.

“I am tired of wars…I am this old, I don't want to suffer anymore, I must grow wings and clear myself of all doubts, to fly to see other planets,” Seckon told Kiripost in a recent interview at his studio in Phnom Penh.

Seckon was born in 1970 in Prey Veng province during the American bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia. He then grew up during the rise of the Khmer Rouge.

Seckon was a buffalo boy after the Pol Pot-led regime; a kid who yearned to attend school but could not because he had to help his poor family. Now, as one of the country’s leading artists, Seckon believes he had to suffer hardships and transform them into a place he now sees as paradise, thanks to his hard work.

“I was a buffalo boy turning a wide field into a field with gold. Even though I've come through hardships, I’ve never avoided them. I have always fixed and turned those unhappy times into happiness. I’ve turned my field that I had gone through into a paradise of my life.”

Leang Seckon speaks with journalist Prak Chan Thul at his studio in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Leang Seckon speaks with journalist Prak Chan Thul at his studio in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

Growing Wings is Seckon’s canvases that recall past events, including more about the book, his personal story, turning bad into good through healing, the Khmer Rouge, ancient wars, the King of Khmer Music Sin Sisamouth, and the biodiversity of Tonle Sap Lake.

Growing Wings also tackles climate change and how people are now connected via Wi-Fi, foreign cultural influence and the digital age. The art also covers the US bombings, the Hong Kong umbrella movement, Covid-19, and the about the late British Queen Elizabeth II.

Growing Wings comes from a Khmer proverb that talks about children and young adults; that one day, they become old enough to be able to fly to freedom. Seckon said that Growing Wings means being open-minded and ready to discover the universe, love, long-term visions and respect.

In the interview, Seckon recalled stories from his mother of how she carried him around in her womb to run to trenches when being bombarded from the air.

“Before we die, we must commit good deeds. Although I have lived through wars and hunger, I can still find beauty in my life, independence and freedom,” Seckon said.

His mother was pregnant with him while US warplanes rained bombs on his hometown in the 1970s in Prey Veng province. He recalled his mother wearing rags as clothes as they had been torn during her searches for shelter.

The US planes thought she was the enemy and dropped bombs, hitting homes, causing roofs to explode and bust into flames.

“We went into the trench and we were all safe, we didn't die,” he said.

He asked his mother to make the skirt with flowers again and then turned it into a painting with warplanes dropping bombs. Her skirt protected her and him inside the womb to defeat the destruction that wanted to take their lives.

“They want to kill us, we responded with flowers to cover the flames,” he said, adding the painting has made fame worldwide and featured in an exhibition in London.

Seckon began to paint at around the age of three on the ground. His mother would ask him to take a shower. He recalls being a lazy boy, who did not want to but instead played with the ground, including painting.

“I just painted smoke and then I drew an airplane, I still remember drawing an airplane on the ground.”

Leang Seckhon shows his painting about the US bombings. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Leang Seckhon shows his painting about the US bombings. Kiripost/Siv Channa

At this age, he said he could only paint clouds and airplanes, and was unable to see colors at the time.

He was around six-years-old when the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia in 1975 and was nearly killed at least two times. He recalled there were still some monks in his area during the beginning of the Khmer Rouge. Seckon went to the pogoda almost every day and saw the color of the monks’ robes as magnificently floating, which intrigued him.

Inside the temple, there were walls of ancient paintings that amazed Seckon, who fell in love with bright colors.

After that, monks were banned and he was no longer allowed to visit pagodas. Instead, he began to take an interest in the delicate carved roofs of ancient homes.

During the Khmer Rouge, as other adults were forced to carry cow dung to rice paddies, Seckon was too small to work. He followed older adults as they worked and was also sent to a school to learn how to grow watergreens.

He played with dirt and made sculptures out of it. He loved pets and wanted to have freedom like them.

He recalls once being hungry and stealing a fish. He was caught and beaten. He remembers seeing trucks transporting rice in and out of his village and seeing large piles of rice. Despite the massive production of rice, he was starving and had no idea where they transported the commodity to.

The trucks came with soldiers and left with some children for conscriptions. One day, Seckon was caught. A soldier held his hand tight and was about to load him up into the truck.

“I was very scared, I was sweating all over my hands,” Seckon recalled, adding that because of the sweat, he pulled his hand in full force and ran away. The soldier tried to follow but fell down.

“If he didn’t fall down, he would have caught me up.”

Seckon escaped death again. Behind a former hospital in Prey Veng, he saw the Khmer Rouge taking people and prisoners in long lines. Prisoners were not given food and resembled corpses.

Leang Seckhon shows a painting about late Queen Elizabeth II. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Leang Seckhon shows a painting about late Queen Elizabeth II. Kiripost/Siv Channa

As a child trying to pee and follow the lines, it was early morning with dim light when he saw the Khmer Rouge pushing those people into graves alive, effortlessly, as they did not have anything to eat and were weak.

Seckon was shaking, ran away and hid in a bush. “If I followed the lines without noticing, I would be killed also. I was small also so they didn’t care much.”

After the Khmer Rouge, during the 1980s, Seckon remained hungry because food was still scarce at the time. The whole nation began growing rice again and Seckon became a buffalo boy but still did not attend school.

He was around eight- or nine-years-old and had to help the family by looking after buffalo. He was upset that he could not go to school. When he saw other relatives dressed up in white and blue uniforms, he wanted to do the same.

“I cried, I cried that I wanted to go to school. I wanted the same clothes but my mother said, you have to look after a buffalo. I did not know what the future would be like for me, but I just wondered why others could study but I couldn’t.”

He wanted books instead and read them under a tree while looking after the buffalo. Instead of being unable to go to school, Seckon played with grass and the leaves of areca palm trees by sewing them up together with color.

Playing like this made him fall in love with the arts and after some years, he was able to go school. He is unable to recall whether it was grade two or three, but he struggled to catch up with the other kids and one of his teachers pulled his ears every day as punishment.

After hard work, he caught up with his classmates and became the top student. He was also able to make some money. The school had painting assignments for students and they paid him to do them for them, which was like training for him.

When he grew up during the 1980s, Seckon went to the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh thinking that he would study painting. He was in a department that taught students singing for about six months before realizing he had come to the wrong place.

He went back to Prey Veng, briefly worked for a provincial information department and then became a soldier.

After he quit being a soldier, the international community began to hold talks for peaceful resolutions for Cambodia during the 1990s, in which the country saw the return of late King Norodom Sihanouk and the arrival of United Nations soldiers to organize the first elections.

As the country began to transform into the new regime, he was told to burn all documents. He did not follow the orders and has kept them until today to turn into art, such as collages.

Next, he rejoined the Royal University of Fine Arts, this time in painting and became a leading student, knowing little that being a painter would be a massive influence. All he knew was painting temples.

Leang Seckon poses for picture at his studio in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Leang Seckon poses for picture at his studio in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

He learnt about ancient and modern paintings and found it difficult to discover who he was. He then spent time studying decorations and began to think about what kind of artist he wanted to be.

His paintings were worth $4 to $20 and some were rejected as customers complained about the wrong painting.

Every other artist on Street 240 in Phnom Penh, even today, faces the same situation that he had many years ago during the 2000s, Seckon said. He went to study singing and in one instance, went on stage to compete in singing while accompanying a friend.

So he decided to change and began to recreate what he had done during childhood as a buffalo boy.

He made his first painting for an NGO and a book for the Cambodian Red Cross. Then, he painted a picture about freedom and hope, portraying a smiling face surrounded by nature.

The artwork was hung on a wall inside Number 9 guesthouse in Boeung Kak Lake and an American artist saw it and came searching for Seckon.

He found Seckon’s home and dropped a message wanting to meet. Seckon finally met the artist, who expressed love for the artwork of hope and was excited about the painting. The American artist wanted to help Seckon and looked at his other paintings.

He then introduced Seckon to the Cambodia Daily and started to hold exhibitions of his work.

He met another foreign customer who saw his work and wanted to buy it. The painting was worth around $200, or one Dumlung worth in gold. He said he forgets the actual price because when got the cash, he went ahead to buy gold, which was one Dumlung.

He was afraid of losing the money so he bought gold. Then, the Cambodia Daily gave him a job to cover page painting in the weekend magazine.

Leang Seckon talks about his painting work at his studio in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa
Leang Seckon talks about his painting work at his studio in Phnom Penh. Kiripost/Siv Channa

He had his first exhibit about Buddha and his fees began to go up. Soon, all of his paintings were sold out. He went to the first exhibit in London in 2010 and began to secure contracts with big galleries in London and Hong Kong.

His works now feature in museums in Australia, England and in the US, and one of his paintings is worth $80,000. The other paintings range from between $30,000 to $40,000.