Up-and-coming artist Keom Keosocheat has not always liked cats.
In fact, it wasn’t until a stray wandered into her apartment that she even entertained the idea of getting one. The way she tells it now, all it took to make her fall in love was simply seeing the vulnerable animal in her home.
“When I stared at the cat for a long, long time, I was touched with its presence,” she said. And of course, the cat was pregnant — Keosocheat smiles, recounting the story — and just a few days later the stray gave birth to four kittens.
Today, Keosocheat has seven cats living with her. The more the merrier to watch her paint.
When you see Keosocheat’s art today in a spacious section of the KBach Gallery at The Factory in southern Phnom Penh, it’s difficult not to imagine her enamoured with animals. Each of the 29 paintings in the gallery’s newest exhibit, titled Eyes of Mercy, incorporates cats in some way, fused with themes of Cambodian culture, animal welfare and environmental concerns.
“Some people are smoking, but they never think about where they put their cigarettes. But then they think that cats are dirty?” she said.
Overall she sees her art as a way to draw attention to the humanity in all creatures, and to express her view that animals must be protected, especially in Cambodia. Keosocheat uses motifs like draping orange monks robes, trees made of cigarette butts and robotic body parts to give her paintings several more layers of interpretation.
After graduating in 2018 from the Royal University of Fine Arts, the latest member of the KBach Collective spent a full year working in her tiny apartment, surrounded by her ongoing paintings and absorbed with the work of finishing them. That first stray cat wandering in was the inspiration that sparked the whole project.
When KBach Gallery founder and owner Tony Francis met Keom and later visited her makeshift studio, he was immediately struck by her devotion to her work.
“I mean literally all she did was paint [for a year]”, he explained. “That was her life, she was so dedicated to it. … The passion was there. So it was a bit like Christmas come early.”
Francis will tell anyone that he’s a “cat whisperer” and has several of his own, but that wasn’t the only thing that pulled him to Keosocheat’s vision. Rather, he was delighted to see in her paintings a perfect embodiment of “kbach,” the Khmer namesake of the gallery and a style of art that merges traditional Cambodian style with quirky modern updates.
Some of the paintings even feature cats wearing Khmer masks, undoubtedly a nod to Keosocheat’s cultural background but also a clue to the viewer to peek beyond the surface layers of meaning.
Francis’s vision for Kbach is to showcase local talents like Keosocheat. He founded the gallery in 2017 with an aim to “restore Phnom Penh to its former artistic glory of ‘the Pearl of Asia,’” and a goal of fostering a thriving urban arts scene by identifying, supporting and promoting Cambodian artists.
“It’s amazing for us,” he said. “We feel that what happened with African, Vietnamese art over the last couple of years, we feel that just about to happen here.”
Keosocheat is incredibly excited — and nervous — to see her first solo exhibition premiere this Sunday, March 8, on International Women’s Day.
“She’s not an artist who’s looking for fame and recognition — we will give that to her, because it’s all she deserves and that’s what we have to do as a company — but she just loves to express herself,” said Francis. “That’s really a sign of a true artist.”
The free exhibition will run from 2pm to 5pm this Sunday at The Factory, with an aerial dance performance at 3pm.