Entering Batia Sarem Gallery, the interior of the renovated Khmer house was indiscernible from any other white cube influenced space. I moved through Theanly CHOV’s exhibition, The Rise (2020), following the wall from right to left. The exhibition featured oil paintings created between 2017 and 2019 from CHOV’s series, Surviving. Rich in color and expression, CHOV’s representation of Khmer people was reminiscent of Kehinde WILEY’s work depicting members of the African diaspora in the seminal exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic (2016). While WILEY’s figures were often set amidst elaborate floral designs, CHOV opted for two solid tones: one shade occupying the bottom 80 percent of the vertically hung rectangular canvases while the other tone took up the top 20 percent of the painting near the figures’ faces.
Each painting depicted a full-body view of a person with gaze and chest directed up, as if ascending to the sky. One of my colleagues, who joined me on the gallery, visit saw the posture and gaze as a sign for pursuit of a better life: the subjects’ hopes, dreams and struggles for the future emanating from their eyes. Similarly, I interpreted the apparent ascent of the subjects collectively, as a metaphor for the rise of the Cambodian subject into the canon of contemporary art and beyond.
Realistically rendered, CHOV’s subjects radiate warmth and life through glowing brown skin, vividly detailed clothes and calm, yet strong visages. Where the backdrop of the two tones meet, consistently a thin line cuts across their faces beneath the eyes. At first, I thought this line was an error by the artist that broke the photorealistic quality of the paintings. However, as I continued to consider each painting, I realized the line could also be interpreted to reinforce the psychological presence of the figures. According to the exhibition catalog, this line is a “demarcation” by which the “the figures in the Surviving series can also be seen as trying to keep their heads above the water” (Loeuk, Phéline and Zlotowski, 2019, p2). Though I didn’t sense the feeling of struggle from the collection of images, the robust colors combined with the figures’ determined facial expressions and upward postures clearly orientated me toward the goal in their minds’ eyes. On this discrepancy between the title of the series and the expression of the figures, CHOV said, “My painting is about how people deal with these tensions, about how people fight for their own freedom, about what they accomplish to emancipate themselves”(Loeuk, Phéline and Zlotowski, 2019, p12).
While all the figures shared the faint line through their faces, there is one painting that broke the posture continuity: Achar (2019). In Cambodian society an Achar is “a lay individual, usually over 50 years of age, who leads traditional [Buddhist] ceremonies” and is considered an “important link between the monk and the community” (World Faiths Development Dialogue, 2012). Having only fragmented understanding of Cambodian ways of being I called the Achar Loktea, or Grandpa in English.
Following the wall from right to left, Achar was the second to last painting I encountered in The Rise. It illustrates an elderly man with a small frame and no hair standing slightly toward the left while wearing a white crewneck t-shirt and green-olive pants. Unlike his counterparts in the exhibition, this figure’s chest is almost concave with his shoulders slightly turned in as opposed to the shoulders pulled back to open the chest as seen previously in the other images. The elder’s gaze still looks upward but his chin is only slightly lifted while his mouth and eyes hold an ambiguous expression.
As my eyes followed his arms down his body, I saw that Grandpa’s hands came together in front of his abdomen with the back of the open right hand in the palm of left. This too broke from the other images in The Rise. Many of the other figures’ arms appeared away from the body with fingers pointed down as if to accentuate their momentum forward and up. Looking at the bottom half of the figure in Achar, his trousers and feet begin to fade into the dark mustard-yellow backdrop of the painting.
Where the other figures may be contemplating what lies ahead, Grandpa seems to be contemplating what already was. The Achar’s hands, positioned in front of him, form the Dhyana mudra. According to Nitin KUMAR, mudras are a highly stylized form of gestural, non-verbal communication used in Buddhist imagery (2001). These gestures indicate the “nature and function of the deities represented” as well as are “used by monks in their spiritual exercises of ritual mediation and concentration… [which] generate forces that invoke the deity” (Kumar, 2001). Speaking on the Dhyana mudra specifically, KUMAR says:
The Dhyana mudra is the mudra of meditation, of concentration on the Good law, and of the attainment of spiritual perfection. According to tradition, this mudra derives from the one assumed by the Buddha when meditating under the pipal tree before his Enlightenment. This gesture was also adopted since time immemorial, by yogis during their meditation and concentration exercises. It indicates the perfect balance of thought, rest of the senses, and tranquility. This mudra is displayed by the fourth Dhyani Buddha Amitabha, also known as Amitayus. By meditating on him, the delusion of attachment becomes the wisdom of discernment. The Dhyana mudra helps mortals achieve this transformation. (2001)
As Grandpa reflects on his life and the events during his time, his disappearing trousers and hazy feet may indicate he is only partially in our world, with his feet in another. Our elders are often seen as our connection to the past: to the histories that preceded our existence. Perhaps though, Archar’s (2019) placement in The Rise (2020) illustrates that our elders are also a conduit to what awaits beyond our hopes, dreams and struggles.
Chov, T. (2019). Achar. [oil on canvas]. Batia Sarem Gallery, Siem Reap.
Loeuk, L., Phéline, M. and Zlotowski, Y. (2019). Theanly Chov. Siem Reap: Batia Sarem Gallery.
Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. (2016). [Exhibition]. Seattle Art Museum, Seattle. February 2016 – May 2016.
Kumar, N. (2001).Mudras of the Great Buddha: Symbolic Gestures and Postures. ExoticIndiaArt. Available from: https://web.stanford.edu/class/history11sc/pdfs/mudras.pdf [Accessed 23 August 2020].
The Rise. (2020). [Exhibition]. Batia Sarem Gallery, Siem Reap. March 2019- September 2020.
Wiley, K. (2012). The Two Sisters. [oil on linen]. Collection of Pamela K. and William A. Royall, Jr. © Kehinde Wiley. (Photo: Jason Wyche).
World Faiths Development Dialogue. (2012). Reincarnating Knowledge: Training the Lay Buddhist Priesthood of Khmer Achars in Cambodia. World Faiths Development Dialogue: Georgetown University. Available from https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/posts/reincarnating-knowledge-training-the-lay-buddhist-priesthood-of-khmer-achars-in-cambodia [Accessed 24 August 2020].