Battambang artist Sokuntevy Oeur was featured in AsiaLIFE’s first edition ahead of her debut exhibition in 2006. Writer Joanna Mayhew catches up on where the 31-year-old painter is now. Photography by Charles Fox.

How long have you been an artist?
I’ve liked drawing since I was a child. I always needed to create; it was something inside of me. I studied drawing at Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang from 2001. I had no expectation to become an artist. Then Dana [Langlois] [from JavaArts] came to look for new artists, and she let me have a show. I earned some money from it, and decided to become an artist. I thought, should I just stay at home and wait for my parents to tell me what to do, or leave and find my own life? So I left. In 2007, I moved to Phnom Penh to do art full time.

What kind of painting did you first do?
Mostly traditional, because I lived in Battambang so I only saw small things. I learned what the school taught me. The first show looked traditional, but the technique was a little different, using coffee with paper. It’s boring, the traditional. You put the same colour, same face, same style—everything is the same. In this world, we need something new; we don’t need to be stuck on one thing. When I moved, I started to understand more about life. I started traveling, learned another language, and spoke with different people. So little by little, my paintings changed.

How has your style evolved?
Now I’m doing surrealism. I don’t like to draw things that look too real, like a person’s skin, so I always change it to make it more interesting. It looks abstract, but it’s not really abstract. You can see real and unreal together, mixing. More importantly, storytelling is in there. I like to listen to people’s stories, and then create the story to come out a bit strange, like a dream. My technique is not that different, but it’s improved a lot.

What have been your topics of focus?
Mostly I think [about] families and how all the people have different thoughts. For example, children always want to escape from the traditional. Parents and children sit around with each other, look at each other, but inside the head you can see are different expectations. They are in the same conversation, but in the mind is something different.

How did your own family respond to your career?
My parents threw all [my drawings] away. They didn’t like me to draw; they wanted me to do something else. Cambodians don’t understand what an artist means, so my parents also didn’t want me to do this job. They thought because of the ideas to create something new, that I’m different from normal people. It’s also how you grow up. I lived with my aunt, and she was very strict. She always told me to behave like a good Khmer woman, and I hated it. I wanted to get out, to do something else.

Can you describe your exhibition opening this month?
The story is about how humans are connected to animals and nature and how our lives can destroy that. I see that’s what is happening in this world. For example, one painting has a little girl. Her face shows she’s scared and also disgusted after she pulls the seawater up, and under the sea you can see all the trash we throw into the water. But surrounding [her] are nature and animals. I’m not really blaming people, or [saying] because the government did this it’s bad. I didn’t really have a motive; people can think about it by themselves.

How has art impacted you over the years?
I have learned to be independent, that as a woman here, you can create something and have a different job than normal people. I’m proud of myself for what I’m doing, and that I’m learning through it. Art is how I learn about myself. All the stories in the painting are connected to me. When people see the paintings, they can understand who I am or how I react. It’s how my parents used to treat me, how I see the society treats children. I don’t judge them as right or wrong; I just show how I feel.

Where is the local art scene headed?
The art market in Cambodia is growing, better than the last few years. More people come here to buy art, to support art and artists. Before, I think they only looked to Thailand and Vietnam for artists, but now it’s open. As time changes, people will change. Art is not something you learn, like A, B, C. You have to feel it. It’s an expression. I hope more young artists come up, with new ideas that will help Cambodian people understand and think about art. Give them time; it will change.

What’s next in your career?
I’m moving to Berlin in May with my husband, and there’s a really big, growing art scene there. I would love to learn more and meet more artists. I’m sure they don’t know much about Cambodia, and I would like to show them through my art. It’s surrealism; it’s a bit crazy. But people can see Cambodian living and culture in my paintings. I cannot say what’s next, but I never say I will give up. If I’ve fought for this long already, why don’t I continue?

Human Nature is on display at Java Café & Gallery from Apr. 29  to Jun. 7. See for information.