Cambodia's history in the arts is bittersweet. During the five year rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, 90% of the artist and intellectual population was killed as a result of brutal and unfavourable communist policies. Anyone with an education was targeted by the Khmer Rouge. Amongst other traumas, this destructive period created a standstill in the creative and critical output that could have been produced in the country.
In some ways, traditional Cambodian art forms were never allowed to flourish freely either. Some arts were performed, but solely as propaganda for the communist party. The texts, highlighting the peasant class, were written and interpreted. Theatre was minimal. Mass productions could sometimes be observed. The University of Fine Arts, the only arts university in Cambodia, was shut down. There was no formal schooling in art and artistry; and what became important was only the political message, not the art form. Art became purely political and revolutionary, in a very controlled fashion.
The restoration of the arts took a few decades. It was tough to rebuild a cultural heritage of over a thousand years with such few people. The few artists that survived the Khmer Rouge regrouped and restored themselves, reestablishing the University of Fine Arts. In the 90’s, the newer generation too began expressing themselves through various art-based and performance forms, albeit modern ones. The generation gap between the older, surviving artist generation and the newer one created a gap in the development of Cambodian culture. The traditional arts could not pick up where they left off. But today, generations who grew hearing stories of the genocide display an awareness and empathy of the trauma in the work they produce.
For example, the relatively new Kbach Gallery in Phnom Penh (founded in 2017) works to support existing artists and nurture fresher, emerging artists in the ‘Kbach’ school of thought. It is loosely defined as a style that combines quintessentially Cambodian elements with modern styles. In Khmer, ‘kbach’ refers specifically to the ornamentation often seen above doorways and on ancient temples. It also entails certain movements, such as those of the traditional Apsara dancers, and is seen as conveying a spiritual power. The style is a powerful one - not only because it attempts to rekindle memories of the rich traditional history of Cambodia, but also because the aesthetic unites the artist community that is slowly growing and being reborn in the country. It is a style that acts as a bridge between the traditional history of Cambodian artforms and the future ones that are more unpredictable, free and exciting to watch.
Other artists incorporate stories of the past into their works, adding their own meanings to them. For a better look, here is a peak into some of Cambodia’s rising talent:
In this painting, Rithy compares the pigs to abusers of power in society. Says the artist, "In the context of Khmer society since ancient times, people like to compare the political and intellectual leaders to the animals or other things". The most prominent people at the forefront in society in his painting are the pigs, killing people for their personal benefit and colouring the sky red.
Daniel "Chaos" Ou
Cambodian, but born in California, Daniel's work involves unique semasiographic hieroglyphics that illustrate emotion through the merging of the symbolic and the significant meanings in war-time communicative language. In this piece, the artist celebrates the harmony and passion with which graffiti has passed on between generations in Phnom Penh. The text in Codex (which reads Earth x Fire) is a signature of the artist and alludes to further growth in the country, stemming from its strong roots.
Pictured above, 'Deva and the Gate of Kbach Gallery' was a commissioned piece by gallery owner Tony Francis. For both, FONKi and Francis, this piece marks the beginning of a collaboration that will influence Cambodia's rising scene. Says FONKi, "I painted a Deva (god) from Angkor Thom's entrance. At each 4 gates of the city, there are 54 figures of Devas and 54 figures of Asuras (demons) aligned on both sides of the entrance. Both rows are holding the Naga (legendary serpent). The scene depicts the Hindu mythology of the "Churning of the Ocean of Milk" to churn the ocean for the nectar of immortality."
Lisa Mam is one of the few female artists amongst the emerging artists in Cambodia. Through her painting wokr, she channels the energy that a woman traditionally brought into Khmer society - before the French and Indian influence. Elements of Khmer heritage and symetrical mandala patterns aid the artist in achieving this outcome.
An urban artist originally from France but living in Cambodia for over ten years, Theo Vallier's style brings out the fierceness of Cambodian traditional symbols - proving their invincibility even after all those years of trauma. Pictured above is a painting the artist did earlier this year on old doors at an arts space called The Factory Phnom Penh. The doors actually open up to reveal another similar painting by the artist inside. Theo Vallier lives and works in Cambodia, and uses rich colours and bold animal and mythological imagery in his work on canvas, walls, wood, and other surfaces.
The styles of the artists are very diverse as they interpret their histories and experiences in their own ways. It is essential to note that while the emerging artist community is tight knit, they see little or no support from the government. While the The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MoFA) is the government ministry in-charge of encouraging the arts scene, financially, it is not as capable.
Independent artists and collectives have initiated their own art festivals like the Cambodian Urban Art Festival, now a regional event. Much of Cambodia's artistic regeneration is left to non-profits and large international funders, and whether this creates a neocolonialist approach to the way the arts scene develops, or whether the traditional charm of the arts continues to flourish remains unpredictable. One can only watch.