The ReHousing of Non-Houses (by Dina Chhan and Fani Llaurado) and Big Format Exhibition (by Dina) will be on display for two months inside FCC’s Mansion. It is open to the public and free entry. The opening is tonight at 7pm. The artists recently stopped by to talk with FCC about their project.
FCC: Thanks for stopping by! Tell me a little bit about your history as artists and how you wound up working in Phnom Penh.
Dina: I’ve been painting since I was thirteen years old, and I learned from my teacher, who had been here for a long time, more than 20 years. He taught me different themes and mediums, and I was painting and drawing up until 17. I was excited about art work. Art seemed like my skill and I loved to do it. I was painting a lot. When it comes to art in Phnom Penh: not too many women, even in Cambodia. I’m also interested in this one, and I love to do it, so why not? I was painting and had an exhibition in Phnom Penh, outside in provinces (Battambang and Siem Reap), in Asia (Singapore), and in Europe too, working with the UN on a landmine project. Artwork here isn’t like Europe where there are a lot of museums and people encouraging artwork. Phnom Penh is slowly coming up though. As an artist I want to see something more, whether it’s in the museum, in the streets, in workshops. I hope in Cambodia women do more art too. It’s great that Cambodia has a school, a good school, teaching fashion, design, and visual art. Cambodia people really like art and try to understand. Before, we were thinking about realism, Angkor Wat, trees, and we weren’t focusing on the abstract. Now people are painting the abstract. Slowly and slowly people are understanding what abstract means. Most of my work mixes abstract and realism together.
Fani: I’m from Spain and I arrived in Phnom Penh four and a half years ago. I was traveling around Asia and then when I arrived here I fell in love and I tried to see what was going on in my life. In Spain I was a graphic designer/web designer. I started photography ten years ago as it was a hobby for me. When I arrived here, because I was tired of graphic design, I decided to be a professional photographer. I started with my own personal projects. My first was Invisible Pathways. It was about gender roles being broken from unknown women, these women were breaking feminine stereotypes firmly established in Cambodian society and culture. After that I started working with NGOs, like PYD, World education and Open Institute, and organizations like GIZ, IOM and USAID.
FCC: Talk about this exhibition. How did it happen? What’s it all about?
Fani: First, I was interested in evictions. I wanted to show how people were and are living. At this moment, people are having this problem moving from one place to another place. They don’t have houses. So I asked, what happened back in history, when during the Pol Pot regime people moved to the countryside and then came back to Phnom Penh. I realized that there were a lot of buildings that were social buildings, like cinemas, cemeteries, hotels. People came back and found they could not longer access their homes. First I wanted to show corporate buildings, but we started to think about buildings as homes. It doesn’t make sense that it’s going to be a home, not like a church or a cemetery. The community made things into houses. This is where people could have their own wishes. We found seven buildings, at least. The exhibition has features five. For us we were thinking about home as a comfortable and safe place and then you realize like with the Hem Cheat cinema, the living conditions are some of the worst conditions. I was researching buildings and I proposed to Dina to collaborate with the idea, because I think the local point of view is completely necessary in this project. She was really interested in knowing those buildings and their history. And one of the things that most surprised was she not having discovered before.
Dina: With this exhibition we worked together and we found success. We had a lot of fun working together. We did research on these buildings, especially after the Khmer rouge. People living after Pol Pot destroyed a lot. People living in these houses, and I think we did a good job researching. Even though I’m Cambodian, I don’t know anything about Phnom Penh. I didn’t know there was an abandoned church in Phnom Penh!
FCC: What has your artistic process been like?
Dina: With this exhibition, there’s a sense of music. I love music. I love painting and I love music and when I paint I listen to music. I paint based on the impressions. I paint something, activities in Cambodia, what everyday people do, doesn’t matter what. The color is nice and expressions are about people dancing, singing, doing activities like selling things. That is what you see every day.
Fani: After learning how the movement of the people in Cambodia happened, the best idea for me was to work with a Cambodian, as sometimes when working with foreigners, you only see from the outside. Dina and I have known each other for four years. We started this project in January, 2013. We were working at other things and it wasn’t a full time project. But for me it was important to have a Cambodian artist who could participate and share her point of view in this. For me, the most difficult thing was at the end, when we had everything. The most difficult part was to give pictures to Dina. We didn’t know how to do the exhibition and how to mix the photography and the painting together. At one point, I just gave the pictures to her and said “Choose the ones you like. You need to get inspired by them.”
Dina: I thought that the pictures looked nice, but the hard part was finding the composition and see how the artwork could go together. Because sometimes you paint and can’t find the composition, and then the painting and photography won’t work together. It took a while to work together. But she trusted me and I trusted her and it worked well together.
FCC: How did it feel to visit the buildings?
Fani: Dina explained me that she wouldn’t be able to go alone, but with a foreigner the project becomes more serious. With a foreigner it’s easy to enter the building. In the cinema the chief of the community told us it was dangerous and we shouldn’t be here, and that we need a permit to be here. When we went to the main room we saw some guns.
Dina: It’s not easy. Sometimes it’s not easy to talk to people there. They are busy, or they are not there, and it’s very hard. They don’t like it when we try to take a photo of them. Maybe they feel embarrassed, uncomfortable with a Khmer-to-Khmer. The first time you arrive everyone also asks why you’re there. With the cinema it’s illegal to be there. It belongs to the government and one day it will be taken away and everyone is very careful. Because one day it will be gone. On a small documentary part, most of these buildings are going to be destroyed soon. With the cinema, they told us we had to ask and get permission first. Because it’s not safe being there, potentially. We went in the evening and it felt uncomfortable. There might have been drug people here. People told us to be careful.
Fani: I liked to see the relationship with the people after we visited them multiple times. The third time we visited the buildings, the people would get comfortable with us being there.
Dina: When it comes to the relationship with the people there, we first make sure they’re comfortable. People in Cambodia are really friendly. They’re friendly if you’re nice to them. The people support us as two artists.
FCC: The Mansion seems like a perfect venue for your work. How did you decide on using it as your exhibition space?
Fani: With the Mansion it happened through Our City Festival (OCF), because OCF is based on urban art and architecture. When we heard of the festival and through the OCF, FCC contacted us.
Dina: It’s a good opportunity. We’re thankful for FCC for letting us have the exhibition there, and we’re thankful for people who are asking us to continue, and for supporting us. I think that it encourages us to do more work and in the future we can do better and better. I think that Khmer people should come see it too. I hope that Cambodian people come. I hope people are interested and become artists and keep something from this experience and learn about the freedom to create.