Community & Arts : Thalias proposes a chromatic symphony by Stef at the Khéma La Poste restaurant

An accomplished cartoonist, illustrator and painter, Stéphane Delaprée has been illustrating Cambodian joie de vivre for 26 years. He is currently exhibiting his work at the Khéma La Poste restaurant in Phnom Penh, giving us the chance to rediscover this talented artist full of happiness.

Stef’s “Happy Paintings” at Khéma La Poste

In 1994, Stéphane Delaprée set foot on Cambodian soil for the first time. The unrepentant cartoonist and traveller only intended to stay for a few months, just long enough to say hello to his two brothers who had settled in the capital. The return ticket ended up in a dustbin, and the artist made the kingdom his adopted home. 26 years later, he continues to celebrate a certain idea of happiness through his work.

Paint what you love

His paintings are instantly recognisable, so personal is his style. There are no shadows in his paintings, but bright, vibrant light, as ubiquitous as the colours and smiles. Scenes from everyday life, transport, monks, children, shopkeepers, not forgetting the elegant and ravishing women, descendants of the graceful Apsaras of yesteryear. Always with the same round face, the same unwavering smile and the same sideways eyes,

“those crooked eyes, like mine, only a little crooked”

Houses on stilts, forests and a river are often the backdrop, and the domes of Angkor Wat never seem far away. In this melody of colours, dominated by red, blue and gold, spring seems to last forever. All in all, it’s an earthly paradise, a not-so-fantastic vision of a land of milk and honey, where everything is a wonder for those who know how to admire it.

Stéphane Delaprée’s work at Khéma La Poste

“It’s a bit like looking at a child, and if I had to give myself a mental age, I think I’d be much closer to 12 than my real age. How old would you say you are? The artist is like that, inviting his audience to discover themselves at every turn by asking them questions. In his company, the usual interview monologue is quickly transformed into a colourful exchange.

Happy Painting, a tribute to joie de vivre

Much later, Delaprée would christen this pictorial movement, which he himself founded, “Happy Painting”, a deceptively naive style of painting that is genuinely comforting, imbued with poetry and joie de vivre. “To say that I woke up one day and ‘invented’ this style would be a big lie,” says the painter. Honestly, I don’t think artists can have a clear idea of their own style from the beginning. It comes step by step, and it’s only later that trends emerge, a cohesion that is enough to define the whole of a work”. Paradoxically, the artist had to go through a dark period for this hymn to joy to see the light of day.

“I found myself in a delicate situation that was difficult to live with. Without really realising it, my paintings became a kind of refuge, an antidote to the pain. I was painting the light I was struggling to find in my life. Besides, painting isn’t a passion for me, it’s more of a need “.

I was the child who drew

Stef has devoted his whole life to drawing, which he learned on his own. “My parents were intellectuals, they took me to museums and bought lots of books, including art books. I used to copy everything I found interesting, especially the illustrations in the dictionary. Sometimes I even pretended to be ill so that I could stay at home and draw in peace. I was ‘the child who draws’ and I don’t think my parents had any illusions about my future. They didn’t encourage me very much, but they never tried to stop me. As a teenager, he made a wooden sculpture for his school, which sold out immediately. His drawings also quickly found buyers, although he preferred to give them away or exchange them rather than sell them. “I was much too shy to talk about money,” he says with a slight smile, as if embarrassed by this peculiarity in a world where every object, every work, has a market value.

Life as a graphic novel

Stef admits that for a long time he lived only for comics, devouring issues of L’Écho des Savanes, À Suivre, Hara Kiri, Pilote and Tintin. Little did he know that, years later, his drawings would fill the

pages of some of these cult magazines. He went one step further when, while living in Canada, he created Bambou, a bimonthly magazine with a print run of up to 5,000 copies. A huge success in the Quebec of the mid-1980s, it provided him with a wealth of incredible memories and wild parties. A free spirit and an inveterate dreamer, his thirst for discovery led him to explore new horizons. Before painting the wonders of Cambodia, Stef will have dragged his drawing boards to countless countries. When he was still a child, his parents left the Paris region for the cold climate of Quebec, before heading to the Senegalese coast. “I had a fabulous childhood there, it was a really happy time. And of course I always drew. I even remember writing, with Normand Baillargeon on the script, a little book called ‘Asterix among the Wolofs’, a copy of which a friend recently found.

Stéphane Delaprée’s work at Khéma La Poste

“On the blackboard of unhappiness, he draws the face of happiness”. Prévert, Le Cancre

The appeal of travel and a change of scenery runs in the family, as this daring crossing of the Sahara in a Mehari shows. On board, Stéphane was surrounded by his father and one of his brothers. A few years later, at the age of 17, Stef left school and decided to embark on a solo journey that would take him all the way to India. Then it was on to pre-civil war El Salvador, which he remembers as an emotional rollercoaster, with unspeakable joys interspersed with bloody episodes. Each time, Stéphane managed to make a living from his art, creating posters, storyboards, LP covers, book covers… He illustrates homages to Prévert, one of whose poems, Le Cancre, seems to have been written for him. Not to mention his drawings and paintings, which he sometimes sold on the street. This bohemian lifestyle didn’t bother the artist, who had little interest in financial success. “It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I really started to worry about the future. Before that, all I cared about was being able to afford to paint.

I didn’t choose Cambodia, it took me

He arrived in Cambodia in 1994, “just long enough to get through the winter”. He immediately found a job with LICADHO and was asked to illustrate a booklet on the new constitution. The atmosphere in the capital at the time did not displease him:

“Everyone greeted each other, there was a kind of fraternity and great solidarity. And since there were very few barangs, we were invited to all sorts of ceremonies, some of them very prestigious.

“At the same time, Phnom Penh resembled a city in the Wild West. There were hardly any cars, we walked through mountains of rubbish bins with giant rats slaloming between them. It was a dangerous place, with drunken men with guns in their hands. Often, as night fell, gunshots rang out across the city. Things have changed a lot since then. After two decades in the capital, Stef decided to settle in Siem Reap, “a quieter place, with a country feel, where you can enjoy a leisurely bike ride along the river”.

Stéphane Delaprée’s work at Khéma La Poste

I am a dreamer, not a businessman

In the 26 years he has spent in Cambodia, his art has evolved, inspired by his love for this extraordinary country. One commission followed another, sometimes on a grand scale, such as the 15-metre-long fresco that adorned the walls of Sihanoukville airport for a long time. Or the 108 covers produced for the Japanese magazine NyoNyum. Sales outlets and Happy Galleries have sprung up everywhere. A prolific creator, Stef has lost count of the number of works he has produced: “Let’s just say it’s a lot! I’m a mixture of a slacker and a hard worker, the ideal for me is to do nothing and find a way to do nothing,” the artist confesses with a wink. “After a while, however, my guilty conscience gets the better of me and makes me lock myself away in my studio.

Stéphane Delaprée

Half amused, half surprised, he asks himself the question: “How has an artist been able to make a living from his art for over 40 years, outside the traditional art circuit and galleries, without money, without affiliations, without contacts, without protection, without marketing? Talent would certainly be a satisfactory answer.

Khéma La Poste :

Artist’s website:

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