An artist from Kampot, Hom Rith, has drawn on sources of inspiration from his childhood for his exhibition at Raffles Les Royal Hotel in Phnom Penh at the hotel’s Le Phnom 1929 restaurant where it is co-presented by Sra’Art Gallery and Open Studio Cambodia.
The ten paintings that are on display at the exhibition in Phnom Penh feature images of cows, lotus trees and lotus leaves, reflecting the artist’s Buddhist cultural background and the influence of some of the first artwork he encountered as a child painted on or carved into temple walls; but in combination with his own creativity as a painter who uses watercolours and acrylics.
Rith says he uses the lotus as a symbol for pagodas, cows are symbolic of the self and depictions of light are meant to convey hope.
“They were the first paintings I saw in my life because I grew up in the remote Cambodian countryside. The Buddhist pagoda was the first place I was able to study art also. I stayed there and devoted myself to learning art. Because of that experience, I continue to pursue a career as an artist today,” Rith, 36, tells The Post.
Most Khmer would understand why Rith uses the lotus to represent the pagoda, because it’s a holy flower to Cambodians. However, his reasons for using the cow to stand in for himself are more personal – what he is depicting are memories from his childhood when he would look after the family’s cows.
While he was guarding the cows out in the field, Rith spent some of that time drawing and painting and he feels a close connection to the animals after spending so much time observing them.
“For my childhood memories of when I was young, there was my school and pagoda that the community built together in the same place. One day at the pagoda a painter came and painted a mural of Buddha and I was really excited to see it because I had never seen a painter create something from nothing on a blank wall in front of me before,” he recalls.
Rith says he took an active interest in drawing and painting ever since that day. At some point he began to use lotus leaves as a symbol for the paintings in the temples that influenced him to become an artist.
“I put cows, lotus leaves and light together to show my devotion to the temple murals that I saw as a child and that inspired my hopes and dreams of becoming an artist,” Rith says.
Rith’s love of art combined with natural talent motivated him to leave home and head to Siem Reap, where he studied and received his formal training in drawing and painting.
Soon thereafter, people began to praise his artworks and even purchase them from him. This encouraged Rith to double-down and work even harder on honing his artistic skills.
Rith started his career as a commercial painter in 2008 doing commissioned artwork featuring Angkor Wat and the other ancient temples in Angkor Archaeological Park.
He continues to do custom paintings based on pictures provided to him by his clients – anything from family members to pets or favourite travel photos – with prices starting at $250 for an A4 size painting and increasing from there according to size all the way up to large wall murals. All of his work is in either acrylic or watercolour paints.
“I like watercolour and acrylic because it is easier to use than oil paint. I can take them with me and paint wherever I want. I just use normal water to mix the pigments. I think a painting is better than a photograph because the painter can create something with a unique style based on his own ideas if they are a really skilled artist,” Rith says.
In his painting Moving Through the Darkness II (2020) a man rows a raft in the dark through long stem lotuses emerging from the water and sees a light in the distance, which Rith says is a visual metaphor for depression and how to overcome it.
“[It’s] about overcoming long-term stress and hopelessness. Lately, I haven’t been able to do much art because I am too preoccupied with indecision. I wake up and say to myself: ‘Before, I couldn’t paint or draw well, but now I can. So why do I sometimes feel like giving up?’
“That’s why I painted it – to encourage myself to put more energy into my work and start making art again,” Rith wrote in his artist’s statement about the painting.
Rith was named a collaborating artist with Open Studio Cambodia in 2019 and he sought mentorship in the collaborative environment there to help him expand the conceptual aspects of his work in order to reach a broader audience.
“All of my paintings come from my imagination, but sometimes the Open Studio Cambodia group helps because we share ideas together,” he says.
His debut solo exhibition Transformed is the result of his time spent there. It opened at Raffles hotel’s Le Phnom 1929 restaurant on May 1 with a reception and a live painting session and it runs through May 29.
“During the opening event at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, I presented my art exhibition to visitors and then I did a live painting demonstration for them. I’m going to do the live painting session again at a closing reception on the last day,” he says.
Open Studio Cambodia, who Rith credits with helping him reach the point in his career where he’s gotten to do his first solo exhibition, is an artist collective working with Cambodian contemporary artists in Siem Reap.
As a response to the hardships endured by all Cambodians during the pandemic, part of the proceeds from the art sold by members of the collective now goes into a fund that helps other artists when they are in need.
“I am really happy to share part of my commissions with Open Studio Cambodia. The money they get helps to support artists by purchasing art supplies, framing canvases or even just transportation. The collective also helps new artists find places to exhibit their work,” he says, adding that the general public is welcome to visit the studio to meet the artists and buy art directly from them. .
For more details, visit the Open Studio Facebook page: @openstudiocambodia