One of Cambodia’s most prominent upcoming artists, Chov Theanly is known for his series of paintings (titled “Surviving”, elsewhere “The Rise”) that shows individuals from across all sections of Cambodian society displayed in the same pose.
Men, women, the youth, the elderly—everyone has their heads raised, as if they are preparing to take off. They are often painted on a two-coloured background. The shades form a demarcation line which passes just above the mouth of the characters. They are trying to keep their faces just above water.
“It’s a sign that we’re all under pressure, on the verge of drowning,” Theanly says. The models he chooses are unknown or familiar, friends or people he has simply passed by on the street.
The paintings are appealing because they are simple and unpretentious in composition—and at the same time, convey a very palpable depth. Within them, the personal powerfully meets the political. The artworks come from a specific national context, one that remains burdened by the weight of recent violence and its consequent trauma—yet they also seem universal. They indicate the tendency of the human spirit to strive, to go beyond one’s circumstances, no matter how difficult, and not give up all that easily.
Currently based in Phnom Penh, Theanly was born in Battambang in 1985. This was the time of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War and Soviet support. Theanly’s family lived in a house with a small bookstore on the ground floor. It was there that he discovered prints of Russian and Cambodian artists from the 1960s. His uncle, a sign painter, was also an important influence.
From 2004 to 2007, Theanly studied Graphic Design at Vocational Training Center of Battambang. In 2011, he completed a law degree in Phnom Penh.
The artist has had solo shows at Java Art gallery in Phnom Penh and has been one of the leading artists of two major group shows: Phnom-Penh at the Musée de l’Hospice-Comtesse in Lille, France (September 2015-January 2016) and Cambodia: Looking back at the Future at the Flinn Gallery in Greenwich, CT, USA in May-June 2017.
He had a solo show at Galerie Lee in Paris in October 2017. His paintings are part of major collections such as the one of the Cambodian artist Sopheap Picand of the Sunpride Foundation based in Hong Kong. In 2019, he was part of a group exhibition at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.
Chov Theanly is represented by Batia Sarem Gallery in Siem Reap, founded by Parisians Lyvann Loeuk and Yves Zlotowski. The name pays homage to the memory of two women whose coming together is an embodiment of the gallery. Batia, Yves’s maternal grandmother, who escaped anti-Semitism in Poland—the horrors of which she never forgot—for Israel. And Sarem, Lyvann’s paternal grandmother, a woman dedicated to the arts, a professor of classical ballet, who perished in the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge.