Meta House is currently hosting an art exhibition featuring the work of Ernst Altmann – a German painter based in Phnom Penh – along with Cambodian artist Say Chearun, whose regular job is working as a vegetable vendor.
Chearun was born with a genetic condition called macroglossia, which means he has a larger than usual tongue that makes him unable to speak clearly.
The Uncontemporary Contemporaries exhibition showcases joint work by the two artists who met in 2014 when Chearun became Altmann’s assistant during a shadow puppet play project at Meta House.
Despite coming from very different backgrounds, the two artists developed their styles together over time by painting side by side on Sundays, sharing their ideas and offering critiques of each other’s work, while also quietly enjoying each other’s company.
“Chearun and I are rather uncommon artist friends, coming from different corners of this world. Yet, the results of our collaboration show plenty of similarities. I meet Chearun for the first time in 2014 when he became my assistant during a shadow puppet play project at Meta House,” said Altmann.
The German said they paint scenes from life in Cambodia both present and past and aren’t interested in the usual sort of subjects here like Apsara dancing.
He said their collaborative works have been a combination of ordinary subjects, text in both Khmer and English and other ideas.
“I have been living in Phnom Penh for five years. I am familiar with the ways to understand where I am. For me, I am interested in understanding the differences between where I came from and where I arrived at. So text on the pictures always reflects us trying to make a connection,” Altmann told The Post.
In the past, beyond Chearun’s lack of speech, their communication was further hindered by language barriers. Chearun’s reserved personality also contributed to a lack of direct communication using any means despite the time they spent together.
Nevertheless, Altmann said he was surprised by the level of understanding they were able to establish over time. In 2016, after returning to Phnom Penh from Germany, he reconnected with Chearun.
“I was impressed by the beautiful shadow puppets he had created using the materials I had left behind. This reunion sparked our decision to collaborate once again,” he said.
Although Chearun had never painted before, he agreed to work with Altmann under his mentorship and benefit from his experience as he resumed painting regularly as part of his life’s routine.
Altmann said Chearun adds magic to the mix of Uncontemporary Contemporaries by painting his powerful visions of a mystical and ancient Cambodia.
“We don’t really understand each other by words, but you know by feeling when we’ve been together. I don’t speak Khmer and Chearun has a very special way of communicating with me,” said Altmann.
Chearun expresses himself more effectively through paintings than he can with speech due to his condition. He comes from a poor family with no resources or connections and has sold vegetables on the street with his two sisters for many years.
Chearun had to give up his studies at grade 3 to become a vegetable seller – a painting about his life is also featured at the Meta House exhibition – to help support himself and his family of eight who all live in a small rental unit.
“I dropped out of school in grade 3 and I had to help make money to pay for the rental room and daily food. My sisters and I pay 5,000 riel each per day to my parents for food and we pay 100,000 riel [$25] each month to pay for the rental room,” Chearun told The Post.
“I ride my bicycle to sell vegetables around the Toul Sangke area from Monday to Saturday and I come to learn art with Altmann on Sunday,” said Chearun.
As a result of his collaboration with Altmann, Chearun – whose first painting was of a man riding on the back of an elephant in 2018 – has seven paintings on display at Meta House.
“We met occasionally on Sundays to paint side by side in silence, while looking over each other’s shoulders occasionally and sharing ideas or thoughts.
“Over time we developed our styles together. Chearun began from scratch, while I had to re-learn to paint quickly and in a straightforward style, since I did not have my own studio. I used basic art materials to discover a completely new world in Cambodia,” Altmann said.
Through their paintings, Altmann said, they want to explore the past and the present, but with a focus on the margins of today’s society.
Altmann said that it sometimes looks like modern urban Cambodians long for the lifestyle that he had left behind when he left Germany.
He said he would continue painting regardless of whether he sells any of his art to patrons and that it is important for Chearun to make some profit from his artistic efforts to help support his family and improve their situation. Profits would also allow him to devote more time to art.
“I truly believe that he has the potential to become a great artist and I think what we’ve done here is very close to Cambodian culture. We’re keeping the prices very low at just a couple of hundred dollars for each painting, and I think it’s very affordable for the rising Khmer middle class,” said Altmann.
The Uncontemporary Contemporaries exhibition is running from April 11 to May 14 at the Meta House German-Cambodian Cultural Centre located at #48 on St 228 in the capital’s Daun Penh district.