PHNOM PENH — There is an (in)famous traditional Khmer proverb, “ប្រុសជាដាដែលមាស ស្រីជាដាដែលក្រណាត់ស,” which basically means, “men are like gold, women are like white cloth.” This is because gold never sullies, while white cloth, once dirty, can never be clean again. The implications of this proverb for sexual equality and accountability are disturbing, to say the least. On the other side of the same coin, there are countless Khmer songs from the ’50s and ’60s that compare women to flowers. Cambodian photographer Neak Sophal’s newest series, Flower, seeks to counter — or at least complicate — these constructions of women, as well as other sexist aspects of Cambodian culture.
Currently on display at Java Arts, Flower is a series of portraits of Cambodian women, each of whom is laying down, wearing little more than a bit of white linen. Though the women are mostly naked, the portraits are cropped above the breasts and are not sexualized. In popular magazines, music videos, and at any important events in Cambodia, women are usually covered in thick makeup, especially to make their skin whiter, but Neak’s subjects bare their true faces, and their eyes boldly return the viewer’s gaze. In each photograph, the subject is surrounded by a sea of flowers of her own choosing. After the photo shoot, Neak stained the colors of the flowers directly onto the print, in a subversive reference to the Khmer proverb.
By adopting all these stereotypes — the white cloth, the stains, the dainty flowers — Neak creatively plays with social constructions of women, pushing but not erasing them. She does not so much reject the stereotypes as put her subjects’ agency into them: They choose the flower and the color of the stain, and they return the viewer’s gaze, empowered. Neak is not depicting a Cambodia where sexism doesn’t exist, but one where women are empowered to push back against it. A place where sexism isn’t hidden or ignored, but openly discussed and confronted.
Since the start of Neak’s photography career, her practice has been deeply informed by her sisters and the overall female experience in Cambodia. She told me that sexism is “a problem hiding” here, adding, “I wanted to show and remind people that [it] is still here.” This series is not the first time Neak has focused on women. In Rice Pot (2012), she captured women with the quintessential object of their (expected) labor, and in The Green Net (2017), she captured female construction workers, who are often underpaid and mistreated on the job. “I like to work on women’s issues and gender even though I don’t stick [to only] these topics,” she told me.
Neak rejects the idea that her practice as a whole is feminist. Throughout her career, she has used objects and simple interventions to create compelling and conceptually loaded photographs, usually portraits. While the experience of Khmer women is undoubtedly a strong theme in her work, Neak’s conceptual process of portraiture is more fundamental to her practice than an overarching feminist read.
Neak’s day job is as a graphic designer, and she was trained at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, so it should come as no surprise that she often adopts a design aesthetic. In some series, such as Hang On and Leaf (both 2013), this training proved to be a hindrance to her more artistic practice; the photographs, while aesthetically pleasing, are predictable and flat, like advertising. With Flower, Neak embraces the aesthetics and tropes of advertising but uses that as a tactic to subvert the sexist imagery that is so common.
Locally, Flower strongly recalls — and also subverts — highly successful pre–Khmer Rouge painter Nhek Dhim. Nhek painted an idealized version of Cambodia, filled with bucolic fields and beautiful women. His depictions of women ranged from bare-breasted soft porn to voluptuous farming girls who were all somehow perfectly beautiful despite a hard day’s work in the fields. These women, who typically engage the viewer with a demure but alluring gaze, are often seen holding sexually suggestive pots and baskets, brimming with the harvest.
Internationally speaking, Flower is in keeping with Eleanor Antin’s iconic feminist photo-documentation series, CARVING: A Traditional Sculpture (1972). Like Flower, Antin’s work embraces stereotypes in order to subvert them. Using unrealistic classical constructions of beauty for women, Antin documented losing nearly 10 lbs (4.5 kg) through a process of starving herself.
I don’t know what Neak’s work means to Cambodian women — as if that was an easily summarized, singular group. I don’t know how it feels, as a girl or a woman in Cambodia, to hear classic Khmer songs or read traditional proverbs. What I do know, as a white male immigrant here, is that Neak has created complicated portraits of Cambodian women grappling with stereotypes and agency, which is a rarity in mainstream culture’s sea of overly sexualized or demure women. And that is an important thing to see.
Flower continues at Java Arts (56 Sihanouk Blvd, Phnom Penh) through June 25.