Like most Cambodians in their 40s or older, Leang Seckon has been haunted by what he lived through as a child during the decades of war and conflict in the 1970s and 1980s.
But on a trip last year, he at last felt at peace. “The snow and tall mountains, all this space … connected with me,” he said. “Peaceful and beautiful, like heaven on top of the mountains.”
This was the Rocky Mountains near the city of Denver in the U.S. where the climate is so cold and crisp that snow never melts. “I felt as if I was growing wings,” Seckon said.
“Growing Wings” is what he titled his exhibition opening Wednesday at Meta House in Phnom Penh.
One of the country’s leading artists, Seckon’s works have been exhibited in several countries over the years including the U.K., France, Australia, Japan, Singapore, China and the U.S. But he had not exhibited in Cambodia for some time.
He decided to do so after experiencing peace and pure freedom as he looked at the mountains covered with snow that spread as far as he could see.
“The snow [falling was] like flowers from the sky: white flowers, cool and cold,” Seckon said during a recent interview at his Phnom Penh studio. “Snow flowers” that would fade away when trees bloom as warmer weather returned to that part of the world, he said.
His painting entitled “Growing Wings” specifically expresses the exhibition’s theme: A person looks toward the sky, his arms stretched with his fingers in a Khmer classical-dance pose and wings stretching over several meters, in a blue-gray scenery with mountains in the distance and flowers in a lake below.
“Birds have wings to fly, but I think it’s not real freedom,” he said. “Real freedom comes from the mind. As persons, we don’t have wings but we have philosophy … mind connections … for me, [it’s] very powerful.”
This artwork is done in Seckon’s signature technique — layers of silky and patterned fabric, leather chiseled into embroidery, acrylic paint — creating an effect of tapestry.
Reflecting Cambodia’s Troubled Past
In the exhibition, the artist, who struggled for a long time with his memories of the civil war and Khmer Rouge regime, seems at last at peace, remembering those events but putting them in a broader context.
“I try to do art … beautiful to heal the suffering,” he said.
One painting entitled “The Field of Elephants Crying” features chapters of Cambodia’s history. With leafless trees, towers and a herd of elephants in the background, elephants in the forefront are shown carrying portraits of Cambodian leaders: Lon Nol in the early 1970s, Pol Pot during the Khmer Rouge regime, Prime Minister Hun Sen during the 1980s as well as King Norodom Sihamoni with his parents the late King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Norodom Monineath Sihanouk. This is done in rich, sober tones of green, gray and brown.
Life in a Global World
Another artwork entitled “My Wings” reflects Seckon’s awareness of politics, which goes well beyond Cambodia’s borders.
At the top is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II of England, her face serene. “The Queen [has been on the throne] a long time and has earned the respect of all countries,” Seckon said, as she embodies stability in an unstable world.
In the lower part of the painting, U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping — both of them wearing crowns — are holding cards, on which are numbers and dollar signs, and negotiating. Wings are spread behind Queen Elizabeth’s portrait as each leader claims to have wings, Seckon explained.
And his work entitled “Lucky Crocodile Star” is about Cambodia’s links to the world. “Sometimes life comes from the stars,” Seckon said.
The exhibition ends March 1.
Meta House is now located at #47 Street 178 near the National Museum of Cambodia.