The contemporary “Artiste Plasticienne” Nicolette Maltat was born in France’s Bourgogne region. Thirsting for exposure to art and having none at home or school, the late-teen Nicolette went to Strasbourg to study exhibitions at its few galleries, its Modern Art Museum and to enroll in one of its art schools.
Although many of the Strasbourg art schools turned Nicolette down, she was finally accepted at the Ecole des Arts Decoratifs where Professor Sarkis, Coordinator of the Art Department, recognized her latent talent and created for her what he called “medical prescriptions.” Nicolette describes these as “wonderful work sheets designed to cure me of my ignorance in Art. They allowed me to compile and study numerous modern Oeuvres D’Art and started me on the wonderful spiritual voyage that Art is all about.”
While studying in Strasbourg Nicole met and married Patrick Rousseau, a well-known French percussionist and studio musician who has performed with important French artists in Europe, South America, and Africa as well as in the United States. For 10 years the couple owned/operated a dance club in Strasbourg that was devoted to salsa music. They closed the club in 2004 when they moved to Cambodia, where they now reside and work.
The couple first settled in Phnom Penh (they moved to Siem Reap in 2014), where Nicolette (“Niko”, as she signs her work), chose to give new life, new simplicity, to her creativity. Inspired by Marcel Duchamp, she strives to “work from her knees”—with few tools, on media that is close at hand and highly portable.
Part of this interest in creating work that is more uncomplicated and unassuming, she asserts, is the profound influence that Buddhist thinking and its relation to life around her has had on her, and the new drive that is impelling her to immerse herself in other Cambodian traditions, to indigenize, “to get some indigenous material” into her psyche and into her work as well as to collaborate with locals.
Niko is best known both inside and outside Cambodia for the Buddha statues she started painting in her bright, sun-drenched workshop on the third floor of the Phnom Penh home. Honoring her determination to create simply and to work collaboratively as well as exclusively with indigenous material while also crediting Buddhist traditions, she buys and stores what she has purchased in the local markets—wooden carvings of Buddha created by Cambodian sculptors.
Once the carvings are in her workshop, she starts to prepare their “toilette” by washing them and then allowing them sit for about a year, during which time the wood is “cured.” Then another part of her collaboration process begins as she starts her dialogue with the piece—asking each carving what it would like to be.
While honoring the answers she gets and respecting/bowing to any resistance she might feel, she refines their countenances with sandpaper and proceeds to decorate them, sometimes using a natural color like the saffron of Buddhist monks’ robes and other times turning to contemporary shades of neon green, brilliant orange, and hot pink.
When Niko first painted and presented her Buddha statues to commercial markets in Cambodia, she faced criticism that they were not respectful of the Buddha. However, Buddhist teachers and monks disagreed, affirming in effect that there are many different, highly individualistic ways to honor the Buddha.
Another piece Niko produced in Phnom Penh, her “Homage To My Professor”, illustrates the dialogue and collaborative process in her work. She purchased an antique Buddhist teacher’s chair in the local market, took it apart, “washed” the ornate base with a tint of neon yellow, and constructed a cushion out of fabric colored in the same neon yellow for what had been the seat of the chair.
Then she decorated the top of the cushion with perhaps a thousand rectangles approximately 1.75” by 4”, cut (with pinking shears) out of the same neon yellow cloth of the cushion, and on these cuttings she hand-wrote/inscribed the names of living and dead artists who have influenced her work. The names include Sarkis as well as an abundant number of many other artists like Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Beuys, Robert Ryman, Richard Long, Gerhard Richter, Wolfgang Laib, and Allan McCollum— all of whom have generously played important roles as teachers and mentors to her.
That this Niko creation is very reminiscent of Buddhist prayer flags placed outside temples and roadside shrines to honor ancestors and spiritual traditions doesn’t escape many admirers.
Another amazing and most attractive work of art that Niko produced while living in Phnom Penh is the Western-style, over-sized “coffee” table that sat grandly in the couple’s large, softly-lit living room between two long sofas. The base of this very large table— perhaps five feet square— is an antique Khmer piece, an ornately-carved table base which retains its original colors of red and gold.
Directly on the top of this antique base Niko applied a multitude of customized shades referencing her own color palette— colors, she says, inspired by Gerhard Richter. Covered then by an equally large piece of glass, this objet d’art doubles as a communal dining table as well as a place to collaborate in the creation of art.
Asked what the future might hold in terms of her artistic expression, Nicolette says she has “no certitude, only questions. I am going to continue combining my life and my work, as the two are indivisible. The fact that I moved from France to Cambodia is reflected in my art— it mirrors my adaptation to my new environment and the rich cultural mixes of both Cambodia and France.
“My work is the road map of my life—intellectually, spiritually, and creatively. It is the link between my past and my present and echoes the memory of my emotions. Sometimes it shows the rural side of my adopted country, Cambodia, and the respect I bestow on her. Other times it reflects the esteem in which I hold my ancestors and all the artists who opened up my eyes to their work.”