Places to see Cambodian contemporary art. Call ahead for details of current artists and exhibits.
- Java Café and Gallery
No. 56E, Street 274, 023.987.420
- Two Fish Gallery
No. 9, Street 278
- Scandinavia Hotel
No. 4, Street 282, 023.214.498
- New Art Gallery
No. 20, Street 9, 012.824.570
- Popil PhotoGallery
No. 126, Street 19, 012.992.750
No. 363, Sisowath Quay, 023.210.142
Although Cambodia has long been famous for artwork depicting traditional subjects — such as its famous ancient temples and delicate apsara dancers — a groundbreaking contemporary arts scene is presently flourishing in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap.
Across both cities, the doors are opening on an increasing number of galleries and viewing spaces. Hanging on the walls inside is artwork created by the growing ranks of pioneering visual artists from the “New School” of Cambodian art.
Yet unlike the paint-by-number commercial successes they studied in art school — Angkor Wats and apsaras ad infinitum — this new generation of Cambodian artist is rather boldly venturing in directions their predecessors never dared, and raising new questions about what it means to be successful.
And it’s working.
Art openings are all the rage. A recent weekend calendar listed five separate exhibits launching on one night in Phnom Penh alone. These events, usually held in foreign-owned cafes, restaurants and studios, have become fixtures on the social set — perfect places to sip wine, study art and speak with other spectators. It’s not unusual to find yourself talking directly to the exhibit’s artist or the gallery’s owner.
If the studios are decidedly expatriate, the artists are exclusively Cambodian. Nowhere is the artistic sensibility of Cambodia’s huge younger generation — 60 percent of the country is under 20 — more easily seen.
“It’s about changing the way people look at art and express themselves,” says Pich Sopheap, 30, a sculptor and president of the newly formed Cambodian Arts network. “The main goal of our project is to put contemporary Cambodian art on the map. Now, we’re focused on building the contemporary arts community — it didn’t exist before.”
Mak Remissa, 2005
In the ambitious rattan sculptures of Sopheap, and the elegant narrative paintings of Hem Sophy, one can find a brilliant fusion of Western training and Cambodian experience.
In the stark, modernist, black-and-white pictures of Vandy Rattana, and the vivid, psychedelic images of Mak Remissa, a new interpretation of photography is evident.
Older artists such as the legendary Toul Sleng survivor Vann Nath and 74-year-old Svay Ken are the movement’s elders — both survivors of the Khmer Rouge era who have translated their pain into masterful, unforgettable works of contemporary art.
But the list of important new artists is growing by the day: Leang Seckon, Chim Sothy, Chhoeun Rithy, Prom Vichet, Linda Sophan and Khun Sovanarith are just some of the painters, photographers, sculptors and conceptual artists whose work is revolutionizing the Cambodian art world.
Perhaps most significant is the opportunity to witness the re-birth of artistic expression in a country that lost most of its cultural traditions over three decades of conflict.
“The arts are on a roll in Cambodia,” says Charley Todd, senior project adviser for Cambodian Living Arts and a sponsor of last year’s Visual Arts Open. “What we are going to see is more and more events. We hope the government will see that the arts are a magnet for economic development, and investing in festivals and events is an important factor in creating tourism.”
The Visual Arts Open, held in December of last year, was a series of nine consecutive shows featuring 20 contemporary Cambodian artists in various venues across downtown Phnom Penh. Asia Arts Magazine hailed the festival as the first contemporary art exhibition in Cambodia. Local patrons and participants called it the first step in a bona fide contemporary art scene.
Now, just one year later, the so-called scene is thriving. The most exciting recent events were the inauguration of the Cambodian Arts Network, a group of artists promoting contemporary arts, and the opening of Sala Arts, a new gallery and studio a few doors down from the FCC on Sisowath Quay.
“Right now the art scene is growing and moving, it’s really exciting,” says Stephane Janin, owner of Popil PhotoGallery. “More and more Cambodian people are coming, and they’re appreciating something new and gaining knowledge. You can see paintings and photos of buffaloes in rice fields or Bayon faces everywhere. Now we’re seeing new things and new ways of expressing them. It’s a truly dynamic time.”