Artist Tidawhitney Lek • Courtesy

Tidawhitney Lek is a rising painter from Long Beach, California. With recent accolades including inclusion in the Hammer Museum’s Made in L.A. 2023: Acts of Living and her inaugural solo museum exhibition, Living Spaces, at the Long Beach Museum of Art, Lek has captivated viewers with her surrealist style that depicts the interdimensional layering of personal narrative with intergenerational memory.

Lek was raised by Cambodian refugees and is the youngest of seven children. From an early age, she was recognized for her artistic passion. Despite doubts about the practicality of pursuing art as a career, she graduated from Cal State University of Long Beach (CSULB) with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2017.

Her early practice oriented around abstract painting but after spending time as an assistant in the studios of artists, Annie Lapin, Amir H. Fallah and Danielle Dean, she turned to treating painting as a diary. The outcome has been a wealth of paintings that bring viewers into her world; one that portrays a deep love and tender connection to the Cambodian American experience while reckoning with inherited memories of war, the realities of forced displacement, and resettlement into underserved communities.

In her paintings, the viewer experiences domestic spaces and Long Beach streets punctuated with figures, notably figures of women who are influential people in Lek’s life. They often wear a mix of Western fashion and Cambodian textiles. Particularly, the sompot (សំពត់) and sarong (សារុង).

In Cambodian culture, as well as others of Southeast Asia, these two skirts are worn for different occasions. The sompot is formal wear while the sarong is for day-to-day leisure. In addition to insights on events and daily Cambodian life, I read these two textiles in Lek’s paintings as queries of the public and private spheres from a uniquely feminine point of view. One which Lek explores further in ghoul-like hands adorned with glittery manicures that haunt many of her paintings.

Lek is among what may be considered the third generation of artists from Cambodia and its diaspora who are wielding the creative potency of their heritage to offer new threads of critical social inquiry to contemporary art.                

“Khmer New Year at El Dorado Park,” 2023. Acrylic and oil on canvas 84 x 108 inches • Courtesy

Danielle Khleang: How do you approach representing different places in space and time in the same picture plane?

Tidawhitney Lek: As a visual painter my work begins on the surface of a canvas, a 2-dimensional blank space. And when I respond to it, the process of carving volumes and distances into the picture plane reveals what is considered and what is not, in all of its context. Time and space are nuance by scale of value and color, transition, and contrast. The subject matter of place and time came into fruition after graduating at CSULB. I had only practice as an abstract painter and found myself tackling my identity soon after I left. Visions of home like sunsets and the domestic space became the grounding subject that tied my fundamental abstract practices into this selective imagery that I so strongly resonate with.

As my vocabulary evolved, so did the horizon of my subject matter. Time portal-ed itself into unknown spaces, spaces that were long before I existed or no longer around… I began to think and revisit these narratives I had for myself and others. All of these ideas and identities surfaced at the mark of a paint brush or pencil. I understood as I coincide my life experience against those who’ve lived theirs, just how far and yet so close we exist within one another. I had to paint [it] first before I could speak on it.

DK: Can speak to the progression from the Sow & Tailor exhibition, House Hold, to Living Spaces?

TL: With the exhibition House Hold, the emphasis was built around an intimate and personal narrative. I was deconstructing the notions I once lived and reconstructing [them]. [I] articulated these vulnerable parts of my identity into a more wholesome narrative for myself… Living Spaces became another dive into documenting the extension of that. The work moves from the intimate and domestic to the public and intersectional.

All the work is referenced from actual places I have a relationship to, as well the figures. The domestic moves into the public and you see sidewalks, a path elsewhere that leads into other-ly places like your local Asian market juxtaposed with an underlying theme of wartime. The Bayon ruins buttressed against neighborhood ghetto gates. The major difference in the two bodies of work is the scale of the paintings. The work has grown much since House Hold.

DK: I was curious why do women’s hands represent this ghoul-like entity? Do you identify with these hands or see a part of yourself in them?

TL: It was very natural for me to turn to the female direction. I was thinking of myself, the female, the woman, the sister, the daughter. This lens that certainly only I can reckon with. It was also because I really wanted to weigh in on this particular relationship I have with my mother and how it shaped me. She held the family together but at the expense of her capacity to show affection in certain ways. And I’ll be frank, I didn’t like them. For a very long time I misunderstood her love for me with discontent and dislike.

I couldn’t see that she was in pain and tired and was just trying her best to handle it all. Her guide as a woman, an adult figure, must have made an impact on me. I must have inherited some of her trauma without realizing where it came from. And when I recall those days, I remember not why but instead how. I do associate these hands to me. I tell others, I’m not a bad kid, I just make innocent trouble. That’s how it was growing up.

‘Living Spaces’ installation • Courtesy

DK: How has your work impacted your relationship with yourself, your parents, and your community?

TL: The impact was great. I was tackling issues that were left to the side for many years. These were conversations that I wanted to have but difficulties expressing or engaging with. That was due to miscommunication of my young age and the trauma that was so steeped in silence from past times. I also have a language barrier between my parents. My father speaks English well but not my mother and I lost my parents’ tongue as I continued school growing up. When I finally finished college, I tried talking to my five older siblings about it, and even then, they couldn’t speak on it. I realized that they themselves were struggling and were trying to settle with this history we inherited by accomplishing this so-called, “American Dream.”

So, in my deepest despair to be heard, I left it to my love of art; the genuine act of painting to describe all of which I deeply cared about to the surface of my canvas. I was reckoning [with] all these choices I had in front of me and all these matter-facts that I couldn’t deny. And what was left was my conviction to own and authenticate [self]. [This] identity that was inextricable from me, and to carry on the deed of what I’ve already begun as my “American Dream,” as the painter, the artist. The responses to my actions have been eye-opening. Sharing my experiences has allowed others, including my family, to reflect and affirm themselves what they’ve been experiencing all this time. It has invited and opened the dialogue up for discussion and has brought about a togetherness in many of my communities.

DK: Where are you now as an artist, what interests you, and how do you envision your practice developing?

TL: I’m doing what I’ve always been doing and it’s documenting my life and everything that has touched it. I really do treat my work as a journal… as proof for me that I felt true about something in a certain way. There’s so much present here that might not be around for long, so I’ll paint the times, the neighborhood and all the relationships that used to be, and what it is now, to where it might be going. The genuine act in the studio is very important to me. I feel in this early stage of my career that there is so much to unpack in terms of my language to push paint, [as] well as, my views of perception. So, I’m excited to share what’s been in the making. Thank you.

“Local Market,” 2023. Acrylic litter and oil xanvas. 72 by 144 inches • Courtesy
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