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Opening the doors to a Khmer impressionist’s treasure trove

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A photo of The Chinese Man Eating Khmer Porridge, painted on April 17, 1975. Eliah Lillis

Opening the doors to a Khmer impressionist’s treasure trove

In a quiet alleyway just off busy Sothearos Boulevard sits a three-storey guesthouse, a sprawling but cosy modern structure connected by open-air walkways. From the outside there is no indication that the building houses what may be the most complete collection of Cambodian impressionism, untouched by the ravages of war. Around 70 of the 225 pieces by the late impressionist painter You Khin are kept inside, lovingly tended to by his widow You Muoy. On the ground floor is a small gallery of impressionist paintings of women, their faces obscured, hard at work. Paintings in a similar style line the rest of the walls of the guesthouse.

The work includes paintings of Khmer culture and Khin’s lived experiences in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

After graduating from the Royal University of Fine Arts in 1973, Khin narrowly avoided the intellectual and cultural purges of the Khmer Rouge regime when he left for France on a scholarship at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Luminy in Marseilles. After spending 30 years living and working abroad as an architect, he returned to his homeland in 2004.

His first solo art exhibition in Cambodia, Women, was held at Phnom Penh’s French Cultural Centre in 2009, featuring a series of paintings on women’s struggles and experiences around the world. That year, however, Khin passed away from lung cancer at 62.

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Khin’s widow, You Muoy. Eliah Lillis

Protecting his legacy, Muoy has held on to the bulk of his work, and the collection is displayed and stored at the guesthouse, called You Khin House, which he designed and had built to fund a nonprofit Montessori nursery and a primary school. Muoy displays the pieces in the guesthouse, but does not have the professional know-how to clean and maintain them. “There was nowhere else,” she says. “But I want to hold onto them, unless there is a museum or something like that where I know they are really well taken care of and they are for people to view – otherwise I don’t see [another place to keep them].”

While Cambodia’s traditional art history is preserved in the National Museum, there is no national gallery for contemporary art, and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts does not have any concrete plans for the construction of one.

Khin painted for his own satisfaction, and worked as an architect so that he would not be pressured into selling his paintings. He spoke little about his art, believing it had its own life and was independent from its creator and that viewers should interpret it according to their own perspectives and understanding.

Though his art was exhibited in San Diego in 2011, Khin and his historically significant work remains relatively unknown in Cambodia. There are efforts afoot to change this, however. Next week, Java Arts and Contemporary Art Space Tours will be leading a tour that includes a visit to You Khin House.

The work at the guesthouse includes paintings of apsara dancers and traditional Khmer culture in the period before the Khmer Rouge, as well as the scenic landscapes of France. But the bulk of his work focuses on everyday life in the countries where the couple lived.

The main inspiration for his artistic style and approach first struck him in Sudan, which he found vastly different from Cambodia. “There is such a contrast between Sudan and Cambodia,” Muoy says. “Sudan is a desert country and Cambodia is a tropical one. The people in Cambodia [are] rather short, and are very tiny, sort of blending into the scenery, while in Khartoum, he was so impressed by the tall Sudanese and their movements. It was really something, it was a cultural shock.”

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You Khin House’s dining area with artwork by You Khin. Eliah Lillis

He then began to paint scenes from everyday life, such as the chaotic markets of Khartoum, Sudanese people in their robes, and the camels striding through the streets. He continued to capture such scenes of daily life in his paintings in Britain, Qatar and other countries where he lived.

According to Muoy, viewers of his work often note that his paintings are full of people, but their faces are mostly hidden. “For Khin, life is there in the movement … [it] is impregnated in clothing, the way you move, the way you talk, the position, the attitude … When you see someone who is sad, it is the posture that tells you they are sad.”

Another striking feature of his work is the use of string in mixed-medium paintings. Muoy interprets this as showing the interconnectedness of life and people. “People always talk about one’s self, freedom, our own country, but at the same time you are bound to others,” she says. “Everybody depends on the other as well, you cannot just think of yourself. Everything has a repercussion.”

Of all his works at the guesthouse, Muoy specifically highlights one, which she said is called The Chinese Man eating Khmer Porridge. Painted on April 17, 1975, the day the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, Muoy says Khin had a “sort of premonition … [that] we sold Cambodia to the communists”.

The Object(s) of Collecting walking tour will be held on Thursday, April 27 from 10:30am-12:30pm, and costs $5 per person. Limited spaces are available, and can be booked through Facebook or email to info@javaarts.org. You Khin’s artworks can also be viewed at You Khin House, #13A Street 830, from 8am-8pm daily.

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