'Water' is the first solo exhibition of one of Cambodia’s most esteemed female painters, Doung Saree. The traditional images are at once a joyful and poetic tribute to the life-blood of the natural world, and a reflection on Saree's own artistic journey – a journey that has sent ripples across contemporary art in Cambodia, contributing greatly to the education of many artists practicing today.
Born in 1957, Doung Saree studied Plastic Arts at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in Phnom Penh. The arrival of the Khmer Rouge cut short this education, and she was forced into exile in Preah Vihear province for seven years. She returned to Phnom Penh in 1982 to continue her studies, and also began teaching at RUFA and the Reyum Institute. Over the last decade her profile has steadily increased; her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and in 2010 she was awarded the inaugural You Khin Memorial Women's Art Prize.
Saree defines herself as a traditional painter, both in choice of subject matter and in style. Her oeuvre is largely composed of acrylic and watercolour landscapes on canvas, frequently depicting domesticity in Khmer culture. Her references to Khmer folklore, and use of clearly outlined flat-fields of colour, are tropes typical of early modern Cambodian painting. Of particular note in this series is Saree's strong use of colour: a vivid celebration of the exuberance and diversity of our surrounding environment.
The exhibition comprises 13 paintings, including 10 that she has recently completed, and three from a previous body of work. Focused around the theme of water, we are presented with, amongst other things, a ceramic water jug, a stream, lake, river and the sea. In her latest work, the water has a strikingly fresh quality: presented in a spectrum of soft colours, arched brush strokes of white combined with a stippling effect, suggest its flow. This movement ensures viewing water is never the same experience twice, and is why she finds capturing it in paint a rewarding challenge.
Amidst the water, nature is mostly portrayed as harmonious and prosperous. In one work, fish swim happily amongst the river's fauna and flora. In another, a vibrant lilac flower blooms before your eyes. Cradled within these scenes, boats transporting and selling goods traverse waterways, and people forage for food at the water's edge. Plants, flowers, humans, and animals repeatedly appear together with her impressions of water: a potent expression of the interdependence and symbiosis of all livings things.
Several of Saree's paintings carry representations of Khmer folklore. Thus, they have a historical significance in passing information, often regarding the evolution of our environment, down generations. One such work depicts a bird sitting poised on a lotus flower. This image references a story about a father bird who, while searching for food for his family, becomes trapped in the flower. Whilst he is away, his family die in a forest fire. The reference suggests the underlying power of the natural environment. A different image shows a sea goddess saving a drowning man, hinting at water's spiritual connotations.
Watching it fall from the skies, hearing it trickle past as a gentle stream, feeling it revive or cleanse us, water surrounds us. ‘Water’ mimics and affirms its namesake as being at the heart of nature: that on which all things are dependent. As such, the message of this timeless series can be deduced – where there is water, there is life. (text by Natalie Pace, independent curator)