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7 Questions: Artist and critic Yean Reaksmey

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Anyone visiting Cambodia 10 years ago would be lucky to come across abstract paintings or contemporary dance. But now local artists prefer contemporary art Yean Reaksmey, 21, who studied traditional music and theatre at Phare Ponleu Selpak art school in Battambang, pops up at every cultural event that takes place in Phnom Penh. A mainstay in the emerging arts scene, he is also a fundraiser and spokesperson for Cambodia Oscar Selection Committee. 7days asked him bout his views on Phnom Penh’s arts scene.

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Why do we see you at every art exhibition, film screening or performance that takes place in Phnom Penh?
I’m interested in arts. I want to see how different artists express their own ideas in their works. Also, I want to learn about ideas from different people, so it will help me for my future work as an art critic.

How widespread is the development of the arts scene?
I see art developing, but only in small parts of Cambodia – mostly in the cities, not in the countryside. Artists bring their artworks to galleries and get people to see and buy them. Cambodian art is like a business right now.

The market is foreign buyers, which I don’t think is sustainable. What happens if the foreign buyers leave or stop buying? The art these artists are making will not be sellable. That’s another reason why I say art is developing but only in certain places.

Do the foreign buyers influence the kind of sculptures or paintings created by Cambodian artists?
Of course. Some Cambodian artists have a different way of thinking right now. They see art as a means of earning money. The way that they create art is according to what the market wants. They do not use art for social change or to develop society.

To me, art is the way to develop the country. It gives people creativity, but some artists just try to satisfy foreign tastes.

Of course, contemporary art is very creative and it can reflect the true concepts of Cambodian people. I should not judge contemporary artists because their art  is very imaginative. But if we ask villagers what contemporary art is, none of them would understand it.

What do you see for the future of Cambodian art?
In the next five or 10 years I think traditional arts will become less popular. But we’ll also see artists owning their personal identity. Now, we already see some artists trying to create their own identification.
Many local artists, especially in Phnom Penh, are starting to develop very individual ways of thinking. They are starting to develop individual techniques.In the future they will stop listening to foreigners. So Cambodian tastes in art will change too.

That’s why now some Cambodian artists are starting to use traditional artworks by incorporating them in contemporary pieces.

Don’t foreign buyers, curators and teachers help boost the reputation of Cambodian artists?
No, not all artists are that lucky! Only some artists who speak English well and have good communications or have publicists to promote their work can make a good living from arts.

Some other artists such Chhon Ravy, Heak Pheary, Chantha, Vann Chhorvoan, Tes Vannorng, Koet Linda or Sorm Sokvibol in Battambang have never had a chance to show their work at galleries, even though their work is amazing.   

You say art is like a tool to fight for social change, so in what way?
In Cambodia, we have some social problems like human trafficking. We can use art as a tool to fight against the social problems. For instance, MTV Exit uses different art forms such as hosting concerts on the street to spread the message. So this is one art activity to push for social change.

I also have my own collective ,Trotchaek Pneik, in Battambang, in which 13 artists work together to combat social problems, such as drug abuse, gang activity, gambling and lack of discipline. We work differently from the artists in Phnom Penh. They bring their artworks to galleries for people to see.

But we bring arts outside the gallery directly to people. Last December, we had a four-day cycling tour from Battambang to Siem Reap. We hung the paintings on our bicycles and we stopped in communities, schools and markets to show them to people, especially young people. We also did live painting, so people could learn what  contemporary art is and how it is done. We got a lot of questions and we surprised people with our work.

Do you think that the artists should surprise?  
I think so!
- Yean Reaksmey’s work and art criticism can be found on his blog at: reaksmeyyean.wordpress.com. Roth Meas

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