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James Scarborough

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Cambodian Artist Khin You (1947-2009)

Posted: 02/07/2012 12:52 pm

The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of Jessica Portillo and Muoy You with the research, writing, and editing of this essay.

Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius writes it's not the thing itself that passively defines us but our active reaction to the thing. In Cambodian artist Khin You's case, the thing is the horrific, systematic, and wide-scale atrocities wrought by the Khmer Rouge's campaign of social engineering and genocide from 1975-1979. His reaction is a powerful, courageous, and bold body of work that bears mute witness to both the campaign and its aftermath.

This reaction takes the form of unforgettable images. Oppressed women -- a mother about to lose her newborn son to academies created to nurture good Communists; a woman that must assume multiple identities, symbolized by masks, in order to survive; an illiterate woman who sits on a pile of books like a piece of furniture. It can take the form of images of birds, once-free and now caged. And it can take the form of images of limp, lifeless scarecrows. The result is a startling, little-seen body of work that embodies freedom as a perpetual on-and-off-again condition that must be earned. Khin's paintings don't bristle with freedom, they bristle with the conditions that spur one to fight for freedom. Is the brush mightier than the sword? Here it is.

Dispassionate and world-weary, the work quivers with contrasts: inside/outside (Untitled - We Are Going to Pray 2), material/psychological (Caged Pigeons), affection/ennui (Woman with Baby), faces/masks (The Sisters). These contrasts describe the stark, black-and-white choices available to the Cambodian people: acquiesce or die. The figures appear as if they're about to vaporize. The scarecrows (Untitled - Woman Scarecrow 1 and Untitled -- Woman Scarecrow 2) serve as perfect metaphors for the beleaguered Cambodian people -- inert, propped up, and filled with straw. One wonders if they're meant to scare off peace doves.

The pictorial space is flat and claustrophobic, all the better to bear testimony. Because it's narrow, it compresses the drama and suggests options, viz., none. Figures are splashed up against the picture plane; this forces the viewer to focus on the furious, staccato brushstrokes etched into the viscous, roiling surface like someone's fingernails in soil as they're dragged away against their will. Surprisingly, the compositions are balanced. Though Khin anchors the spectral ghost-like figures with triangles (pietas) and intersecting rectangles (crucifixes), their design doesn't so much suggest ecclesiastical order as to allude to the persistent -- and eternal -- anxiety and hopelessness described by the brushstrokes. To descents (Think Rogier van der Weyden) from the crosses.

Sometimes the colors are literal: care for the red child in Untitled - Woman with a Red Baby, is about to be transferred from its mother to a Khmer Rouge Communist indoctrination school; the mother is spectral ghost-white, as per her recent childbirth as well as from her upcoming separation. Sometimes the colors are symbolic: the red in the same piece can symbolize forces fiendish and infernal. The figures are elongated and stylized, not dreamy but nightmarish, akin to those from Picasso's Blue Period. The twine suggests bondage and death (handcuffs, a noose) as well as the psychological links (a mother to a child, a figure to its alter ego) that, for better or worse, bind together the figures, the country, and the culture.

Khin You serves as a Kilroy was here sentinel to observe and document the existential life in Cambodia in the late Seventies. His work to questions the inalienable right to individual and collective freedom. Yes, it answers, freedom is a Right of Man, but, as shown here, it doesn't come without a cost. Even against overwhelming odds, it's the Sisyphean gesture (In You Khin's case, it's gestural), if nothing else, which matters. Whether it involves Southeast Asia or the Middle East, the second decade of the 21st century or centuries before, the story must be told of those who, having survived totalitarian rule, can inscribe it on our cultural subconscious. Though the work offers an experience horrifying to conceive or envision (Imagine what it was like to live through), it's also presents a catharsis, reminding us of the ever-necessary, ever-vigilant scramble to uphold freedom in all its iterations.

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Khin You was born on March 2nd, 1947 to a family of farmers in the Kampong Cham province of Cambodia. Here is where he developed to be an artist. His uncle painted Buddhist scenes in local temples and later became his nephew's inspiration to become an artist.

In 1973, he graduated from Royal University of Fine Arts with a concentration in Interior Architecture and received a scholarship to study in France at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Luminy, Marseilles (School of the Fine Arts of Luminy, Marseilles). He studied 3D decoration and spent his time painting portraits (which were sometimes commissioned) and the landscapes around Marseilles.

While he was still in France, the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia. In 1975 he won first prize for a graphic design in a nationwide competition organized by the French Ministry of Culture. That same year, he married Muoy You. In February 1977 they went to Sudan, where she got a job teaching French at the University of Khartoum and where their son, Setthivoine, was born. Khin worked as an architect and continued painting; he exhibited at The French Cultural Center, Hilton Hotel, and private homes.

In April of 1978, Khin and Muoy had their second son, Tiesda. They remained in Sudan until June 1979. From September to June 1981, he was an architect for the Aménagement de la Vallée de Bandama, an Ivorian Coast governmental project in cooperation with France to build new villages for people in this vallée. His painting's persistently expressed his sad yet angry outlook towards the horrific massacre occurring in his country, but it wasn't until August 1981, when he and his wife went to a refugee camp in Thailand, to bring Muoy's sister and brother-in-law to France, did they directly hear what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge regime.

In September 1981, he became the architect with the Ministry of Education in Qatar. After the Khmer Rouge was ousted, a civil war rose with the Vietnamese troupe that now occupied Cambodia. Still with blood-stained hands, the Khmer Rouge was recognized as the representative of Cambodia at the United Nations. Khin and Muoy could not return to their country because of the disastrous conditions it was in; no food, no schools, no hospitals, and with two young children these were not surroundings to live in. This exile was reflected through the symbols of confinement seen in his paintings at this time. In 1982, during a summer in France, his daughter Kanika was born and three years later, his youngest son Tevong was born in Qatar. In September 1999, he headed to England, where he settled in Twickenham, near London. There he befriended local artists and was especially inspired by Indian artist Mali to begin one of his now signature attributes, the use of strings on his canvas. While in London, Khin took part in several exhibitions including a solo show at the Riverside Gallery in Richmond, in which women became one of his main themes.

In 2003 his wife returned to Cambodia. He followed her in 2004. During this time, strings continued to impact his paintings depicting the Cambodian society's corrupt and materialistic nature. He died on August 8th, 2009 in Bangkok.


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