This exhibition of abstract paintings and sculptures by contemporary artist Chhan Dina, depicts the bustling streets of Phnom Penh as sites of contrasting experience. It considers the streets as the backdrop of people's existence; as a place to work, rest, socialise, and for young children to play.  Colourful portraits of everyday activities sit against starker images of urban poverty. These images highlight the city’s streets as literal and symbolic pathways, taking people to diverging and sometimes bleak places.


For those of us living in cities, the streets are the canvas upon which we experience our lives. Dina applies various types of paint and uses an elaborate scope of colour to portray the differing experiences of urban life. Using acrylic, water colour and enamel paint, a dark palette conveys the hardships of those whom call the city's pavements home, whilst the brighter shades show the energy and industriousness of working life. Intimate portraits contrast with broader studies of the exchanges and practices that coexist in the city, which are depicted at a greater distance.

This body of work is largely derived from Dina's time spent teaching those who have come from the countryside and live on the streets. Forced by the necessity to make money for their families, life is being lived day to day and without time or support to find a sustainable income. The resultant works however, oscillate between alluding to a community formed through shared experiences and representing individuals who are clearly displaced.


Dina conveys the helplessness and vulnerability of the later, both in her paintings and ceramic sculptures, largely through the positioning of their bodies. One canvas confronts us with a teenage boy sitting on the floor, legs crossed and eyes transfixed somewhere in the distance. A child walks against a black background, carrying an oversized bag of rubbish he has collected. Weighing down on his back, his burden is obvious for all to see. Another painting shows young children, brown with dirt, huddled together, as though attempting to form a greater strength.


Dina's striking use of abstraction across this series in her figures and scenes is combined with a semi-representational quality. Although she is painting everyday sights for people who live in Phnom Penh, her expression means aspects of the work are not immediately recognisable. In a number of works, wide brush-stokes give the paintings an almost blurry quality which forces the viewer to look deeper for clarification. Here Dina is defiantly commenting on often subconscious ignorance and selfishness in the face of such uncomfortable situations as poverty on immediate display:  a brief glance as we pass followed by little reflection once out of sight. As such, Dina's intention may be read as asking us not only to explore the canvas, but also to explore our typical perceptions and reactions to her palpable subject matter.


Whilst these figures serve to highlight expansive social failures caused by the separation of families though poverty-driven migration to the city, Dina's approach is sympathetic rather than critical. The painting, 'My family are farmers', suggests a precarious, rural existence whilst in another, we see a mother sinking into the background, as though she is letting her family go.


Dina's work discusses individual experiences within their complicated socioeconomic context. Through her poignant attempt at stirring human consciousness about urban poverty, Dina provokes important questions concerning personal and collective responsibility for the people whose lives are conducted on the streets. Showing the difficult realities for those who move from the provinces, alongside those who are left behind, this exhibition is a gesture toward these disparate families. (text by Natalie Pace, independent curator)

about the artist

Dina Chhan