“Art is an expression of how I feel; how I look at society. I just love painting,” says self-trained artist Rena Chheang, whose hobby is rapidly gaining her recognition across Cambodia.
The 27-year-old has always harboured a passion for painting, enjoying the mandatory art classes she studied in high school. During college, Chheang painted in her spare time for fun with a few fans of her work snapping up her colourful creations.
“I sold some because people liked them, but I didn’t make a big deal out of it,” she recalls. “I didn’t pursue it further.”
Then three years ago a friend told her that ARTillery café in Phnom Penh was looking for new artists to exhibit there. After introductions, Chheang was invited to showcase her work, leading to her first public exhibition.
“I’d never done anything like this before, but I thought I’d give it a try,” she says. “It was successful, and I sold half my paintings so that encouraged me to do more.”
Since then, she has worked again with ARTillery in Siem Reap, some private businesses and had her work displayed at MetaHouse. In March, her solo exhibit Thrive took over the walls of the gallery at The Great Duke Phnom Penh – formerly InterContinental – and in April, some of her work featured in Identity: A Visual Dialogue About Life in the Urban Habitat, a multi-disciplinary exhibition at MetaHouse.
“I try to find inspiration from other artists,” she says, adding she trawls Pinterest for ideas, discovering different artistic techniques and styles along the way. “I try to produce original work that’s realistic abstract; a combination of the two.”
Chheang, who teaches English full-time and runs a photography business, uses her work as a way to tackle issues close to heart while celebrating the world’s beauty. For her first exhibit, she was inspired by John Milton’s epic 17th century poem Paradise Lost. “I like poetry a lot and studied this at college, it is very deep,” she says.
Portraits of street kids and urban landscapes were her way of approaching economic and social changes in Cambodia for her show at ARTillery in Siem Reap. While Thrive was inspired by nature and features a striking collection of plants and flowers, interspersed with semi-portraits of women.
“I do a lot of travelling and visited Bali, Penang, Hanoi and Hoi An last year,” says Chheang. “I also spent a lot of time travelling in Cambodia and I’m inspired by my own country. So much needs to be improved but there is so much to enjoy as well.”
Vegetation and flowers commonly found in Cambodia, such as the lotus flower and banana leaf, feature heavily in her work and are used as a tool to tackle social issues.
“Nature is beautiful, but it also struggles to survive,” she says. “In the piece with the lotus flowers and the half portrait of a girl, the girl represents what she’s surrounded by; nature shows her inner struggle. Then there is the cactus, which I chose because it’s survives the cold nights and the harshness of the sun. It’s one of toughest plants and I use it to show there is still hope.”