Inside a new gallery in Phnom Penh, art professor Ly Daravuth points to a sculpture featuring Buddha faces above a representation of the world, and explains why more contemporary art can't be found in the capital.
“People say there is no art activity in Cambodia. I would say there is no art because there is no market," Ly Daravuth said. "It's very difficult to convince [this artist] to make these objects, because there's no outcome to that."
Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan are hoping to break that cycle. The two Royal University of Fine Arts instructors recently opened Situations, a gallery across from the National Museum at No 47 St 178. The embassy of the order of Malta is providing financial backing. Prices start about $120.
In an interesting merger of art and technology, the building also is occupied by Khmer Internet Development Services, a Cambodian-run Internet access and Web-page design company. Other venues, such as the Sunway Hotel, are featuring contemporary Cambodian art as well
On the surface, the exhibit at Situations showcases the work of several contemporary artists trained in Eastern Europe, as well as the "contemporary" artwork of a self-taught painter of Cambodian scenes. Under the surface, the show reflects the tension within the Cambodian art community as it struggles to form a new identity.
For example. Long Sophea, a 33-year-old contemporary artist, studied in Russia for seven years. Her work reflects the more abstract styles learned there. One of her paintings features a watch in the center and raises the question: What is the value of the watch? For who? On one side, abstract images represent the chaos of the universe and on the other, the control of nature. "Humans have to stay in the middle, confined by the clock," she says.
She and others came back from Eastern Europe to be ostracized by artists who had stayed true to traditional Cambodian painting. "People said they were not Khmer because they were not painting Angkor Wat," said Ingrid Muan. Ly Daravuth and Muan also say there is friction between the young contemporary artists who have diplomas from overseas, and Svay Ken, a 65-year-old, self-taught artist who has gained regional popularity for his primitive scenes of everyday life in Cambodia. The former hotel waiter didn't start painting seriously until five years ago at the age 60.
"I liked to draw pictures when I was young, but my family was so poor that I never could go to school to learn how to be an artist," he said in an interview this week. "I can't say I'm a good artist. The way I paint is dreaming or remembering a thing in the past such as the Pol Pot regime." He also likes to represent simple, daily events such as a farmer cultivating his rice, a repairman fixing a bicycle, a barber giving a haircut
So far, it's unclear how large of a market there is for contemporary Cambodian art and how it ultimately wll be defined. Long Sophea still scrambles to make a living by teaching, illustrating books for NGOs, and writing diplomas. Svay Ken, who has a gallery near Wat Phnom called the Khmer Art Gallery, said most of his buyers are foreigners. Said Ly Daravuth of Situations: "The idea is to break this cycle and offer a space where people can see their work and they can be recognized." (Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong).