Art of Survival

Words: Harriet Fitch Little    Photographs: Thomas Cristofoletti


Drawing on cultural traditions and a troubled past, Cambodia’s contemporary artists are creating a vibrant new artistic culture that is distinctly their own

A few years ago, I stood in slick, white cube gallery Sa Sa Bassac in Phnom Penh and watched a video projection that proved such uncomfortable viewing, it still makes my skin crawl when I think back to it. The nine-minute film depicted Cambodian artist Svay Sareth, sat at a table in scrubland on the outskirts of a village. Using his teeth, he is biting, tearing and chewing a pair of black rubber sandals, spitting the pieces out on to the ground. His teeth grind together noisily. The whole thing was viscerally unpleasant, yet undeniably moving.

Above: Artwork by Svay Sareth (Thomas Cristofoletti / Roum)

Durational performance art pieces like I, Svay Sareth, Eat Rubber Sandals are not the sort of thing that immediately come to mind when picturing Cambodia’s cultural output. Indeed, the moment I stepped back outside the gallery, I found myself on the stretch that locals refer to as “Art Street” — a long road leading down to the Mekong River that’s packed either side with shops peddling countless paintings of more familiar subjects in local art, such as elephants, Angkor Wat ruins and Apsara dancers with fingers contorted into impossibly elegant poses.

Above: Cambodia’s street art plays an important role in its cultural scene (Thomas Cristofoletti / Roum)

However, Svay Sareth is not an anomaly among his peers. The prize-winning artist is part of a growing network of urban Cambodians who are forging successful careers as contemporary artists. At its best, their work is as bold, provocative and sophisticated as anything you might expect to see in the cutting-edge galleries of London and New York. “Contemporary art should be a window into discussing critical points of view in Cambodia,” Sareth tells me. Explaining the technical underpinnings of his discipline, he adds: “And contemporary painting isn’t about abstraction and mixing lots of shapes — or when you paint a Buddha and just change its colour to blue or purple.”

It is difficult to overemphasise the struggles that artists of Sareth’s generation have faced. In the 1970s, Cambodia’s peaceful advance towards prosperity was thrown brutally off course when the ultra-communist Khmer Rouge regime came to power and set about reimagining the country as a place without intellectuals, experts or even cities. Between 1975 and 1979, almost a quarter of the country’s eight million people died. Sareth himself was forced to live in a refugee camp on the Thai border until his late teens.

It is no surprise that these experiences have shaped the creative practice of the country’s modern-day artists, often in very powerful ways. In Sareth’s striking video, the artist is chewing on the shoes because they are the same as the ones the Khmer Rouge soldiers wore. With every bitter bite, he is confronting that legacy. And his contemporaries have found their own distinctive ways to address what happened: Kim Hak’s acclaimed photographic project Alive takes the form of a collection of dramatic still-life compositions showing the few family heirlooms that survived the Khmer Rouge, as a means of commemorating the huge tranches of his personal history that were lost forever; in Mak Remissa’s Left Three Days series, the terror and confusion of the evacuation of Phnom Penh is conveyed using cut-out silhouettes and billowing smoke.

Dana Langlois, curator and long-time owner of the Java Arts gallery in Phnom Penh, says that a strong autobiographical slant has come to define the country’s contemporary art: “This is something that I have observed as being close to the surface — the use, and perhaps necessity, of personal histories and narratives as a source of artistic expression.”

That said, over the past half-dozen years or so, the dominant narratives have shifted. While artists born after the abolishment of the Khmer Rouge may still be making distinctively autobiographical work, many are driven by newer concerns, including environmental degradation, urban development and the injustice of the country’s economic disparities.

Chov Theanly is at the vanguard of this new wave. From his home studio in the sleepy town of Battambang, the young artist crafts beautiful, photorealistic paintings that evoke a country in flux. For his recent series Striving, he painted elegant figures in decorative traditional dress against jarring backdrops: a woman dressed for an elaborate wedding but standing in an urban slum; another serenely smelling a rose in front of a roped-off scene showing soldiers. “Some people, as long as they are in traditional dress, feel confident,” Theanly says. “But of course, they are often poor and just pretending.”

Above: Chov Theanly at work in his studio (Thomas Cristofoletti / Roum)

Theanly’s paintings thrill with a sense of uncertainty — this is an artist looking forward, trying to feel out his country’s future. And yet the past is never far from his mind. “I am inspired by the old souls, the old masters, but so many of them are gone,” he explains. Another devastating legacy of the Khmer Rouge; the fiercely anti-intellectualistic stance of the regime resulted in an estimated 90% of the country’s artists being killed between 1975 and 1979. In a country where craftsmanship has traditionally been handed down verbally, the effects of this loss were sharply felt. When Theanly was growing up, he scoured his hometown for its few remaining masters and clung to them. He says he would like to return the favour: “I want to start working outside, so that people can just stop by and see me painting. It’s one of the best things you can share.”

Above: Chov Theanly’s photorealistic style is inspired by images from 1960s Cambodia (Thomas Cristofoletti / Roum; Chov Theanly; Thomas Cristofoletti / Roum)

Aspects of Cambodia’s past can influence its contemporary artists in other ways. For instance, emerging talent Chan Dany looks to ancient kbach rachana — decorative Khmer motifs — for inspiration, painstakingly creating beautiful, delicate surfaces that resemble tapestries, but actually reveal themselves to be innovative uses of materials like intricately arranged pencil shavings on wood. Another artist interested in kbach, Leang Seckon — one of the most prominent names on the scene — also looks to the past in his work, often reframing historic narratives and symbols in a 21st-century context. Working with a range of mediums, he explores themes such as recent history, royalty and inequality. By blurring the lines between past and present in this manner, artistic traditions are kept alive and made relevant to a modern-day Cambodia.

Above: Leang Seckon uses the art of Kbach in his work, using historic symbols in a 21st century context (Leang Seckon)

There’s no denying that the grit and determination exhibited by Cambodia’s artists is remarkable. What they need now is a thriving local infrastructure to support them. There are several galleries in the capital — Sa Sa Bassac, Java Arts, n o w h e r e and The Community Art Gallery among them — but the majority are at least part-foreign-owned, with many operated as charities. While these interventions have been useful in providing platforms for young talent, there is some criticism that they have also hindered the development of a robust, indigenous market for contemporary art. As Sareth puts it: “It’s difficult for artists working in Cambodia because they have no local collectors. They have to wait for collectors from outside the country and some of them have a different vision.”

However, Khiang Hei, a Cambodian-American art consultant, is optimistic that local networks are emerging. “You have a few local artists and art enthusiasts who have started doing their own thing away from, or in collaboration with, foreigner-run galleries.” He cites a recent exhibition at Java Arts — The Object(s) of Collecting — as an example. Curated by Cambodian artist Reaksmey Yean, the event staged a showcase of items from the collections of local art lovers — a reminder to artists that their buyers don’t come exclusively from abroad. Other artists are feeling the shift too. “In Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, there are now restaurants hanging abstract paintings on the wall,” says Dina Chhan, a sculptor and painter best known for her expressive, explosive paintings. “Whereas before it was only Westerners who bought my art work, now Khmers are buying it too.”

Above: Sculptor and painter Dina Chan at work (Thomas Cristofoletti); Sculptor and painter Dina Chan is known for her expressive work (Thomas Cristofoletti / Roum); Sculptor and painter Dina Chan is known for her expressive work (Thomas Cristofoletti / Roum)

Across both its sister locations in Cambodia, Raffles is also recognised as a champion for locally produced art. In Phnom Penh, Raffles Hotel Le Royal — in itself an artistic embodiment of Khmer art deco — contains a striking painting by Chhim Sothy, depicting the Princess Norodom Buppha Devi as an Apsara dancer. Additionally, the Theam’s House boutique at Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is an atelier and artists’ studio for Siem Reap creatives, where Khmer-inspired pieces are crafted with a contemporary twist.

Above: Work by Chhim Sothy is exhibited at Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh (Thomas Cristofoletti / Roum)

Elsewhere, the parameters of the art world are shifting more rapidly, with Cambodia’s youngest art stars finding huge audiences without ever having had a gallery show. Take the case of David Myers and Kimchean Koy, Cambodian graffiti artists who have already completed commissions abroad, despite their tender teen years. They prioritise visibility online and on the street over more formal exhibition platforms. “Street artists are not concerned with trying to exhibit their work in confined areas,” explains Kimchean. “Once they can put their work in well-known public places, they get more work and attention in return.”

It is not a model to be scoffed at. Street art in Phnom Penh is already so popular that David and Kimchean spend their school holidays running tuk-tuk tours of the city’s ever-changing roster of graffiti landmarks. Traditionalists need not worry that the adoption of a technique first popularised in Philadelphia will result in generic, Americanised art. David and Kimchean’s practice is utterly rooted in Cambodian culture: its elegant calligraphy, its Angkorian mythology and the glamorous Khmer pop stars of the 1960s.

Above: Cambodian graffiti artist, David Myers (Thomas Cristofoletti / Roum)

“Although street art might be something new, artists have been able to integrate history and culture into their works in these modern times,” says Kimchean. “Cambodians’ ability to stay strong to their identity while exploring new mediums and artistic languages is exemplary.”

From street art to sculpture, and from beautiful design to cutting-edge contemporary installations, Cambodia’s artists are drawing on history to craft a rich tapestry of creativity that is entirely their own.

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