'We may all come from different ships but we are on the same boat now': Andrew Hem explores the refugee experience
In a new body of work, the LA-based street artist and painter takes us on a journey of survival and reveals what it's like to be a refugee child. Through his dream-like, impressionist landscapes, we understand more about his family's experience of escaping genocide.
The paintings are to go on display next month in what will be Andrew Hem's first solo exhibition in the UK. Titled Refuge, the show at Dorothy Circus Gallery in London will feature fifteen new works by the artist who was born during his parents' getaway from Cambodia in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide. "We may all come from different ships but we are on the same boat now," says Andrew Hem, explaining the theme of the show. "I am a refugee kid who came to the states by being sponsored by a family in Richmond Virginia. My life could have been completely different if not for that family. I might have still been a painter but survival would have been on the main front. I wanted to showcase unity in this new body of work. To appreciate the different and not discriminate."
Hem's artistic style is a mixture between the culture of the rural animistic society of his Khmer ancestors and the dynamic urban art of the tough Los Angeles neighbourhood where his family settled. Fascinated by the Graffiti art movement from a young age, he honed his graphic, figurative and compositional skills on the walls of LA, before following a passion for figure drawing to a degree in illustration from the Art Center College of Design, where he received a BFA in 2006. His artworks, made recognisable by the evocative palettes and the impressionist brushstrokes, convey visions and memories able to carry us through a time and place suspended between reality and dreams, in a spiritual landscape where the city and nature blend together as introspective protagonists.
In Refuge, Hem gives us an insight into his refugee experience by making us part of his survival. His characters invite us to join them on board a boat to escape horrors many of us will never know, facing a journey heavily weighted with loss, emotion and possibility. With fluid and luminous brushstrokes and a vivid colour palette, there's a surreal quality to Hem's work, as we try to understand more about what it means to leave the place we call home. He draws both from observation and memory with a desire to analyse the fragility and strength of human beings and on the power of change in a community and single individuals. His artworks show us a "tomorrow" when the world is much smaller and different cultures merge to become one.
Because of his Asian and American background and his numerous travels, Hem is, in fact, able to offer a glimpse of this inevitable evolution. By documenting people's experiences in the respective urban and natural environments of the countries he lived in, particularly in Asia, Hem depicts their everyday life and exceptionality with ease, "like a trendy t-shirt, whose texture appears to us as if through a lens with an international perspective," so says the Gallery.
If you look closely at Hem's new paintings, you can see crowds of people and solitary figures wandering through dense landscapes in search of inclusion and belonging. The characters portrayed are hugging and welcoming us – something we've not enjoyed a lot of in recent months – reminding us who we are, where we come from and, above all, the love and acceptance we're all capable of.
The series Refuge will go on display at Dorothy Circus Gallery in London from 18 November until 18 December 2021. To find out more, visit andrewhem.com or follow him on Instagram.