Cambodian Art Blossoms

Archives of Cambodian impressionist paintings are currently being exhibited in California. Painted by the late You Khin, the artwork is a dedication to the history of Cambodia, as well as the atrocities committed by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge – with a particular focus on themes of displacement and genocide.

But You Khin’s legacy is also a long way from contemporary Cambodia, which is changing fast. Fifteen years ago, Cambodian art was virtually non-existent, with only a handful of painters practicing their trade. And, like You Khin, their focus was typically restricted to the horrors of the Killing Fields and war, or pleasant pictures of Angkor Wat and rural scenes.

These days, though, the country’s tempo is shifting. Cambodia has moved from a country ravaged by war to one of the region’s top tourist destinations with a fledgling manufacturing base, and its evolving art scene is growing up. Artists are becoming more in tune with a rapidly normalizing society, and local artists are fusing Cambodian traditions with the modern, and borrowing ideas from abroad. This has allowed them to move away from rigid, two-dimensional depictions of temples and farmers working their rice fields, which were standard fare before the country’s 30-year war.

English sculptor Sasha Constable has lived in Cambodia for a decade, where she has been prominent on the local arts scene.

“The main difference over the past 10 years is that artists are becoming more experimental with their use of different materials and concepts,” she says. “There are also a number of artists that have lived abroad working as artist in residence (France, New York, China to name a few places) so outside influences are creeping in too.”

Her sentiments were echoed by Nico Mesterharm, director of the Meta House Art Gallery in Phnom Penh. Mesterharm says that Cambodian art was once defined by artists who did little more than depict traditional motifs to be sold to the odd tourist for a few dollars. However, the likes of You Khin and Van Nath, survivor of the infamous S21 extermination camp who found fame through his paintings of torture and death, have changed much of that.

Mesterharm notes that Cambodia’s art scene began to change in 2005, when about 25 local artists started a project called Visual Arts Open, sparking the move towards contemporary arts and away from landscapes, portraits and the Khmer Rouge.

“This was somehow the beginning of a young Cambodian contemporary arts scene,” he says.

Traditionally, Cambodian artists are trained at the Fine Arts School in Phnom Penh or in Battambang, 300 kilometers west of the capital. Among them was Chhim Sothy, whose paintings fetch up to $3,000 each and have been exhibited across Asia, Europe and the United States. He says the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge dominated his early work. Buddhism was also a major influence, but recently he has turned to other sources of inspiration.

"I like more contemporary art or abstract art like Picasso, William Kooning, Gauguin or van Gough, I like this style,” he said during an exhibition at the Lost Room in Phnom Penh.

He also likens himself to a monk in search of wisdom.

“Now, I've changed a lot. My work is more about the family, about the people around me, sometimes abstract, sometimes it’s thinking about real life.”

He mixes mythical characters from Hindu poems with man as an explorer of life, painting oil on canvas with many shades of green, blues and lots of red, especially in his nudes which aren't necessarily erotic but relate more to urban family life. Mother and child are constant themes.

“I’m very happy because I have developed a lot," he says.

According to Constable, the resurgence and fusion of local classical art with outside contemporary influences is changing the cultural landscape. Film, dance and music have also seen a re-awakening. More galleries are opening.

“Also there are now a number of people and institutions collecting contemporary Cambodian art, private collectors but also the Singapore Museum of Art for example. There's a large exhibition planned for 2013 in the U.S. which will include visual arts as well as dance and a conference element.” 

Among the new wave there are also the more outrageous.

Oeur Sokuntevy enjoys tackling traditional Khmer values that hold strong dictates for women, expectations that promote strict morals, marriage and children.

Described by one critic as the ‘trippiest’ artist in the country, Tevy, as she's known, uses animals instead of people. One painting has a muscle-bound gay elephant tending a monkey, a satirical send-up of Cambodia’s middle class women and their indulgences such as hairdressers and make-up, once spurned as Western vices by Cambodia’s former communist leaders.

“I started drawing my family and friends around me and people in Cambodia. Then I supplemented the people with animals because we are all related and we all live in the same community,” she says.

Younger artists normally fetch between $450 and $800 a painting, but Mesterharm says artists still need to expand, and remain reluctant to focus on social issues in a country notorious for poverty and corruption. Instead, there's a tendency to paint only what is considered beautiful.

"Most of the art is quite colorful, people try to work with different materials. They work in the fields of sculpture, painting and photography,” he says. “They also try to do something, which is Cambodian. They try to find their own identity. Only if they do so they will also find a market because this is what this scene still lacks – a local market and an international market.”

While Cambodian art still needs a wider market and broader acceptance, its supporters insist a great deal has already been achieved given most of the capital’s intelligentsia were slaughtered after the Khmer Rouge seized the country in 1975 and emptied the cities of their people.

Thousands more were among the millions who perished in forced labor camps and the years of war that followed. But now, as a new generation untainted by conflict emerges, the artists are finally leaving their mark on the country’s cultural landscape.

Luke Hunt blogs at ASEAN Beat.

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