Sopheap Pich spent his childhood years in Cambodia, in the era when Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge held the country in a brutal grip. In the mid-1980s, his family fled – ending up in Amherst, Massachusetts. Pich went to high school there, and he went on to study art at UMASS. He’s now recognized as the Cambodia’s foremost contemporary sculptor. Recently he was back at UMASS, making plans to become an artist-in-residence. Sitting in the UMASS Museum of Contemporary Art, thousands of miles away from his studio near Phnom Penh, he’s starting to makes plans to work with students in the fall on prints and maybe sculptures from recycled metals and plastic.
Pich studied painting at UMASS and graduated in 1995. It wasn’t until years later he says he truly found his medium. His sculptures are often large, ratan, wire, and burlap constructions of human organs and building compounds. There’s s one large piece on exhibit at MASS Moca in North Adams. Another piece he made a few years ago is a giant morning glory. He says it’s a very cambodian flower.
“We used morning glory to make everything. There’s more morning glories than rice [in Cambodia]. We make soup out of it, fry it, and there’s a certain connection to the culture.”
Even with that connection, Pich says he didn’t set out to create a literal narrative of his homeland, more an abstract one. It’s compelling either way,and why he returned to a country still rebuilding after years of war. Pich’s says his immediate family was fortunate to escape the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. His father remained a metal smith through that period.
“He just worked downstairs and I often helped him make castings, of all things. Making kettles pots, and buckets. There was a big thing with buckets.”
Pich’s family left Cambodia in 1980 for a Thai refugee camp. Pich says his father went across the Vietnamese border every week to trade rice for other materials, including gold and cloth. He’d bring it back to Pich’s mother who would sell it on the street. It was a dangerous time but Pich says they made a living and eventually got to the U.S. So years later, when pich told his parents he was returning to his native country?
“So this didn’t fly well with my parents. Cambodia doesn’t need artists. They don’t need your type who had the opportunity to leave and didn’t get medical degree or a law degree; didn’t become somebody useful. You’re going to go there and be an artist?”
Pich says his parents saw him as a failure. Today, even with his art showing all over the world he says they worry that he pay his rent on time. Pich himself laughs when he hears himself described as his country’s foremost contemporary sculptor. He says the title can’t last too much longer.
“I think that the idea that a Cambodian artist is supposed to be a certain way is probably going to change soon. Those people who think that ancient Cambodia is Cambodia only. People seem to forget that we have technology, you tube, email. and we can travel. Cambodians can get visas and you you will find there’s going to be more people like me who, have been everywhere and will come back and make a life in Cambodia. “
Pich is working on a new series of relief paintings. The pieces depict the landscape of Ratanakiri Province on the border of Vietnam. This is where the Khmer Rouge built a headquarters in the 1960s, and the region was devastated by bombings during the Vietnam War. Pich gave the works gentle titles like Plains, Fields, Hills.
The pigment he’s using is bee’s wax and dirt collected from from all over Cambodia. And as much as the art is about places that have been burned to the ground and where people died, he wants viewers not to see it as done by someone who is Cambodian, or anything else:
“But when you see the work I’d like you to be in a different space. I don’t want you to be thinking – oh he made that because he was a refugee, because he came from a war torn country. Oh I see land mine in there; I see atrocities in there. No. But if you want to say that black is war or death. You can find it in there. But that’s not my goal. My goal is to be a free person and make work that is free. “
Pich is working on a series of relief paintings that will soon be displayed in Germany’s prestigious modern art show “Documenta”. He’ll be back at UMASS working with students in the fall.