Julia Haw is excited. There is no mistaking the infectious energy of the Brooklyn-based artist as she arrives at the steps of the gallery, barely having shaken off jetlag after her journey back to Cambodia from the US. She has good reason to be, however – the artist will soon be staging her first international solo exhibition here in Siem Reap, in a country which she refers to having “changed the landscape of her mind”.

Following almost a year of intense work on “Same Same But Different“, the latest series by the vivacious, industrious artist will be on show from the 11th to 31st of  January. We caught up with Julia to find out more about the series, the impact Cambodia has had on her, and her seeming obsession with the mundane.


Q: Tell me about the process of creating this series following the impact that Cambodia left on you. Is all your work based on experiences you’ve encountered?

JULIA HAW: Oh yes, absolutely. My last series, for instance, was based on relationships. All my work is extremely personal. When I was younger I made work that was very dark and kind of oppressive. I think when you’re younger you’re a lot darker, and the works don’t connect with people as well. When you’re older you get a sense of humour, right? And as I’m getting older, I employ that sense of humour in my work and it has become essential and central to the works I make. When I came to Cambodia, I felt there was so much humour here in daily life. The whole “same same but different”, the jovial attitude of the people I met. With the culture being juxtaposed with the darkness of what had happened here with the Khmer Rouge… this really set my heart on fire. How can these people be the kindest people I’ve ever met? How can they have this disposition knowing what their people have gone through? This really struck me.

When I was younger I made a lot of work about people I knew, my grandmothers, for example. But now I’m realising that even though those works, while they do sometimes connect with humanity, it’s more about speaking with a broader scope or spectrum.

‘Bokator Twins’, are my twin friends Phany and Sophanin. They are very important and dear to me and I maintain a very close relationship with the both of them. But at the same time it is a very feminist and political piece about the overall subtle and at times overt repression of females in Cambodian society. I firmly believe that if I’m not into the work or feeling it, it will not connect with people as well. And the reason why I feel Bokator Twins will connect with people, is because I spent two and a half months in the thick of every detail, really connecting myself with the subject matter. I knew even months before creating Bokator Twins that it would be the largest, and the feature piece in the show.

 

Q: Is the first set of work that you’ve done that’s based on your experiences in another country?

J: Yes. And this was a country that profoundly and completely transformed the landscape of my mind. The first time Cambodia even registered in my mind was in a Southeast Asian class in college. I studied the temples of Angkor, and vowed I would go there one day. In 2015, due to various circumstances, I had a plane ticket to anywhere in the world. So I met up with a friend of mine in Thailand and we decided to head to Cambodia. As fate would have it, in a random restaurant, I met Bill Gentry, the founder of Colors of Cambodia. I ended up visiting COC the next day and seeing the children have an opportunity to create art, in a country that doesn’t have art in the centralized school systems, was awe inspiring. The art was absolutely incredible as well.

It’s interesting because American politics is really what drove me back. You remember the mass shooting in Orlando? I felt completely at my wits end and wanted to do something positive with the world. I wrote Bill the very next day and asked if there was any way for me to come to volunteer for a few months, and so I made my way back here on my own. I said goodbye to my family and I had a lot of anxiety before I left, which is rare, but I had never taken such an extended stay.

I came in with complete humility and an attitude of knowing nothing. I did do my research and readings, but just coming in with a humble attitude was imperative.

Q: How do you reconcile the fact that you are essentially a foreigner here learning from a cultural and historical experience that you’re removed from? Do you feel like an outsider?

J: I was very wary of this in creating this body of work which will be shown in Cambodia. I realise that a lot of galleries in Cambodia, rightfully so, show Khmer work mainly. I think that’s appropriate and the way I reconcile this is the only way I know how. I came in with complete humility and an attitude of knowing nothing. I did do my research and readings, but just coming in with a humble attitude was imperative. When people coming in acting like they know everything; “everything is so cheap here, I can get a dollar foot scrub, I want people to wait on me hand and foot…” I realise this comes from a sense of naivety, and I was and still am in many ways naive.

I talk to my Cambodian friends and ask them, “Do you hate Americans?” We played a large role in the genocide that happened here. The Americans played a large part in the destruction of Cambodia. A lot of Americans do not know this, and I myself was completely naive of this. They don’t teach this in the history books. In many ways I am jealous of my Cambodian friends and the only thing I want, this crazy part of my spirit, is to be accepted. They bring me into their homes… they are kind to me, how can I repay this?

 

Cambodia Smile
12″ x 16″, Oil on Arches 100% Cotton Paper, 2017

Q: A lot of the themes you address are universal themes, from gun control to feminism, even the absurdity of daily life, you’ve continued on the things that interest you. I was struck by the “Today is Saturday” painting from your Comfort and Control series, and it brought to mind your ‘Cambodian Smile’ piece. Why do these things matter to you that you want to highlight it to us?

J: I’m obsessed with the mundane. I’m obsessed with these things you see every day. They are so encoded and have so many political, social and humorous dark undertones.”Today is Saturday” for example was a dry eraseboard in the home where my grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s, was living. That board represented aspects that kept human beings alive – social engagement, like bingo night, and a snack-n-chat.

Cambodian Smile” is exactly the same. I passed this signage in front of a dental office near the twin’s house. There is an emphasis on white skin in Southeast Asia, and this ad features a white woman, yet is aiming to promote the Cambodian trend of a diamond embedded in the tooth. But if you look deeper, there’s a person lighting incense on the altar inside, there’s Khmer writing, there’s a reflection of the street and the telephone wires and a lively scene because the roads are so insane. And when I researched the issue of white skin, it’s not a race issue, it’s an issue about social structure and politics. When people were/are working in the fields their skin darkens from the sun, and so historically the workers/working class would always do their best to hide this. And so in Siem Reap you’ll see women in turtle necks, gloves and large brimmed hats. To Westerners, who take pride in getting a tan in a location and showing it off to their friends back home, this is absurd. I love these juxtapositions, and the phrase here ‘same same but different’, as it is so embedded and humourous but with a dark underlining.

 

Q: Tell me more about the title. Is it only to do with comparing your experiences here and back home?

J: Mostly yes, because I think that’s all I can really bounce off. I don’t really believe in creating work I know nothing about. I’m really keen on diving in and getting to know something because otherwise it is disgraceful to come into a culture with your chest blown out and acting like you know more than you actually do.

 

My greatest fear in creating this body of work is that people will think I’m coming in and capitalising on the community, the vibe of the country and the devastation that has happened. I focused very little on the devastation, and more on the reconstruction and happiness. Obviously the darkness is underlying everything, but that is humanity.

 

Q: What has stayed with you after the initial euphoric impact of being in Cambodia?

J: I haven’t painted my nails in a year. I know it sounds so stupid, but I had this thing from my mother where I had to paint my nails every week and they had to be pristine. But I work with my hands so much they would be ruined so quickly. It’s small, but here’s the underlying message – when I came here I thought I was in a great state and that I wasn’t egoistical. Well, I knew I would always have remnants of this, but I realised just how egoistical and vain I was, and it speaks to something as small as painting my nails and wearing less make-up. All of the vanity and things I held on to and which were so important started falling away. It wasn’t something I noticed at first, it was gradual, but when I got back to NY I realised I hadn’t taken a selfie in months. I used to do that all the time. It was very personal to me, and a huge takeaway from Cambodia specifically, this realisation of larger issues. It was about the shedding of ego, and what my father used to tell me, “The more you learn, the more you realise how little you know.”

My greatest fear in creating this body of work is that people will think I’m coming in and capitalising on the community, the vibe of the country and the devastation that has happened. I focused very little on the devastation, and more on the reconstruction and happiness. Obviously the darkness is underlying everything, but that is humanity.

The one piece I did do directly about the war was sparked by Bill Morse, a friend here and the founder of the Landmine Relief Fund. A few weeks ago, he and his crew found a rusted AK47 in the bushes while scouring the countryside of landmines. The gun had been provided to the Khmer Rouge by the Chinese. I researched this further and the Chinese actually set up a huge artillery building in the middle of the Cambodian countryside. It showed to me even further how much the rest of the world had played a role in the genocide. The Americans, the Chinese, and more forces than I’m even aware of… I understand I still have so much to learn, and to me, this is the most important thing any human being can go through, growth and transformation.

 

Q: What about your technique? Did you change the way you worked for this series?

J: I started employing a lot of extreme detail. I already had a lot of detail embedded in my work, but I started to really see how far I could push it. So the pieces I’ve created are extremely detailed, and the backgrounds are elaborate. Every brush stroke, every pebble, every stone, every rock in the Cambodinan jungle, I felt it. For the two months I was creating Bokator Twins I was living and breathing it, and it was excruciating. I felt like I wanted to venerate and really exemplify the beauty of the country and it was very important to me.


Same Same But Different” will run from 11th – 31st January, 2018, at One Eleven Gallery.