Whispered insults, social isolation, and lost opportunities, Morn Chear is channelling the stigma he has endured since he lost both his hands a decade ago into artwork that highlights the hardships of Cambodia’s disabled. At 20, he was electrocuted in a construction accident and both his hands developed gangrene, pushing doctors to amputate them below the elbow.
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“I was depressed, I did not know what I could do to earn money to feed my family,” he says of the shock he felt when he woke up from surgery.Ten years later, Chear has found his place at an arts collective based in Siem Reap, where he specialises in Linocut block printing, a technique rarely used in Cambodia. Open Studio Cambodia represent several contemporary artists, selling their pieces out of an airy studio in the heart of a city famed for the Angkor Wat temple complex.
Linocut block printing requires a deft handle to chisel a scene into a block of linoleum and then applying ink on the print depite losing his arms. “Most of my artwork is all about my real stories,” he says, gesturing at a piece that features himself sitting in a hammock as others walk towards a pagoda. Chear remembers the incident of his friends snubbing him clear as day: “Don’t call him to come with us. He is handicapped. It’s embarrassing,” he recalls them whispering.
Cambodia has undergone significant changes in the past two decades, with cities such as Siem Reap and its capital Phnom Penh developing at break-neck pace to satisfy a growing tourist- and export-reliant economy. But health and education remain a sticking point and for people with disabilities, access is even more challenging. A survey last year by the Cambodian Disabled People’s Organisation found that 60 percent of the country’s disabled live below the poverty line. Government officials say 310,000 people out of Cambodia’s 16 million-strong population have disabilities , although the number is likely higher because many fall between the gaps. Discrimination is rife, with Cambodians seeing the disabled as street beggars or a burden to their families. For Chear, the social isolation from once-friendly peers was the most cutting. He was nicknamed “A-Kambot” by villagers, a derogatory Khmer word for the handicapped, after his return home, which “pierced” him deeply, and made him question whether life was worth living. Relief came in 2015 when he was recruited into a non-profit group’s training programme, teaching him contemporary dance, drawing, computer skills, and even English. Working with Open Studio Cambodia in 2018 seemed a natural move because it fuelled his drive to use art to persuade the public to see the disabled as capable people.
“Some people who looked down on me in the past have become friendly again,” says Chear, adding that his artwork has been displayed in the US and France. But now, with billions worldwide forced to remain home because of the Coronavirus pandemic, he is reminded of the social isolation he endured right after he lost his arms.
“I hope we will overcome it,” he says from his home in Kampot province, returning after the workshop was temporarily closed by the Coronavirus lockdown. “If I can’t make art, I don’t know what I can do,” he added.