As one of Cambodia’s only female sculptors, Dina Chhan has created waves across the world with her abstract art.
Marissa Carruthers finds out how her career was shaped. Photography Charles Fox.

As a child, Dina Chhan scooped red clay from the ground outside her Phnom Penh home. Moulding clumps of earth into pots and buffaloes, she would provide her siblings and friends with endless entertainment in the absence of manufactured toys.

“This is where my love of art and creating things started,” recalls the acclaimed artist, now aged 29, surrounded by an array of vivid paintings and intricate sculptures in her small studio in the Cambodian capital.

At age 12 and proud of her creations, Chhan made her school’s American art teacher, Ronald Reimann, a clay buffalo. The effigy impressed him so much that he asked her family if he could teach her the creative craft. Her passion was further fuelled by trips to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, where she would spend hours examining the carvings adorning the walls. “I was fascinated by them and thought it was amazing how Cambodian people had created this such a long time ago when there were no machines,” she says.

Juggling studies with evening art classes, Chhan went on to become Reimann’s protégé and over the next decade experimented with her innate artistic talent, honing skills in both sculpting and painting.

“He really encouraged me to be creative and to use my imagination,” she says, remembering him once holding a coconut and asking her to imagine that it was a human head with hair. “He wanted me to understand about the abstract mind.”

Since developing a distinct style that uses powerful brush strokes, splatters of paint and bright colours to depict the world around her, she has championed Cambodian artists across the globe. Projects include a portfolio of abstract paintings depicting street life in Phnom Penh and a series of bold creations to accompany an album by the band Ketsa.

Her work has been exhibited in Columbia, France, Singapore and America and, as one of the country’s only female sculptors, she feels compelled to push the Kingdom’s creativity by teaching visual arts at international schools and orphanages in the capital.

“In Cambodia, people are very creative, but the Khmer Rouge destroyed everything,” says the artist, who was born in a refugee camp in the border town of Poipet before moving to the capital. “Cambodia is slowly developing its art scene and it’s good to see it being encouraged.”

This is where Chhan’s ambitions lie – in encouraging Cambodians to get creative and expand their imaginations. “One problem I have had is that Cambodians tend to want something realistic, like a painting of Angkor Wat or the countryside. They’re not used to abstract art.”

However, this is slowly changing as more artists experiment with the style as a form of expression – something Chhan, who is inspired by Siem Reap-based British artist Sasha Constable, a descendent of artist John Constable, encourages in her classes. But despite the country being awash with artists creating carvings from materials such as wood, stone and metal, those working with clay remain rare. “I much prefer using clay because it’s soft so I can use my hands for everything and don’t need to use tools,” she says, assembling the pieces for her latest show at Meta House on several large plinths that litter the studio.

To source material for her work, the sculptor heads to the ancient capital of Udong, Kampong Speu province, where she buys clay straight from the ground. With the same material used to create bricks, many clay artists hit trouble when their creations explode in the kiln, she explains.

Chhan has found a solution by mixing tissue paper with the clay, which holds it together. To give the sculptures a wood-like finish, she burns sawdust and smokes her pieces in the kiln to turn them black and brown. They are then cleaned and sanded before polish is added.

For her latest exhibition, Cages Torn Open, Chhan tackles the issue of animal exploitation. A mixture of human-esque statues with animal features sit alongside a collection of oil paintings featuring weeping tigers, tortured tortoises and captured birds that explode with colour – a confident assertion of the theme of liberation.

As part of her research, the artist spent time with the Wildlife Conservation Society, where she learnt about poachers capturing rare animals to be used for medicine and food. “I want people to see the importance of thinking into the future,” she says. “If we are not careful, these animals will not exist in [future] generations. As humans we have the power to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

Cages Torn Open runs at Meta House, 37 Sothearos Boulevard, Phnom Penh, until Jun. 12. Chhan will talk about her work on Jun. 10 at 6pm. For more information, visit artistdina.com