During a conference in Siem Reap last weekend, an academic accused foreigners of damaging the local arts scene. His accusation caused a stir, Will Jackson finds.
A speech questioning the role of Westerners in Cambodia’s contemporary art scene caused a stir at a Cambodian art history conference in Siem Reap last weekend.
US art academic Phally Chroy’s talk titled "Why only non-Cambodians care about contemporary art of Cambodia" accused non-Cambodians of stymieing the development of an organic Cambodian contemporary art scene by imposing Western art practices on local artists.
Although all of the non-Cambodian curators or owners of the capital’s art spaces declined to comment, other local artists called Chroy’s accusations “baseless”.
The animated presentation, at the fourth annual Siem Reap Conference on Special Topics in Khmer Studies, stood in marked difference to the rest of the three-day conference which was made up of topics on the theme of “Divergent Approaches to Cambodian Visual Cultures”.
The conference – which included experts in anthropology, archaeology, art history, cultural studies, history, philosophy and religious studies, with the requirement being that submissions relateed specifically to Cambodian visual culture – was carried out in Khmer and English with interpretation provided for both.
Chroy, who was born to Cambodian parents in a refugee camp in Thailand before growing up in the US, is a frequent visitor to Cambodia and is doing his multidisciplinary arts PhD thesis on Cambodian art at Ohio University.
In an interview this week he said that Western art practices that influenced Cambodia’s current art movements were incompatible with traditional Khmer art.
“Art in Cambodia traditionally is a utility,” he said. “It’s ritualistic and serves different functions in Cambodian society. People pay artists to come play at weddings because it’s tradition. People have dancers at blessings because it’s a part of their spirituality. There’s no spirituality in [Western art] ... it’s only conceptual.”
He said Cambodians did not really care about displaying work in galleries.
“[Contemporary art in Cambodia] is only the concern of non-Cambodians,” he said.
“Cambodians don’t care about contemporary art unless they get pulled in and they’re somehow getting something out of it, whether it’s the chance to travel abroad or to make some money.”
He also claimed non-Cambodian art gallery owners and curators were exploiting local artists to benefit their finances and their egos.
“You have individuals who want to dictate what art is and do things here and all of a sudden you get an art economy of sorts – higher education, curative practitioners and the museums,” he said.
“And in Cambodia these people become associated with each other and fight with each other and in the end it’s not for the greater good, it’s not for art, it’s for their own good.”
He called on members of the arts community who took offence to his views to stop being “so serious” and said if he upset people it must be because there was some truth to what he was saying.
However, Amrita Performing Arts director Kang Rithisal said he found Chroy’s arguments and conclusions “baseless”.
Rithisal said Cambodian art had always been influenced by the economic, social and political conditions at the time and the current contemporary art scene was no different.
He used the example of classical Cambodian dance, which was believed to have been created in the seventh century when the king at the time was pronounced “devaraja” or god king.
“Classical dance was used to perform, the dancer was used to relay messages between the earth and heaven, from the human being to God,” he said. “So at the time what we call classical dance now was a new creation in response to the political situation at the time.”
Amrita’s dancers and choreographers were trained in classical techniques and incorporated foreign influences along with their own experiences to create new art in the same way that artists had throughout Cambodia’s history, he said.
He said the methodology Chroy had used was flawed because he had not interviewed enough contemporary artists.
He added that the idea that Cambodian contemporary artists chose their form for the money was wrong because they could make more by doing classical music or dance at weddings and functions.
Prominent Cambodian art critic, curator and artist Yean Reaksmey also disagreed with Chroy’s conclusions.
Reaksmey said it was futile to talk about authentic Cambodian art because nothing was truly authentic in contemporary Cambodian culture.
“If you look back to the history in Cambodia, we’ve been influenced many times by different cultures from before the Angkorian times; by India, later on by China, and the French,” he said.
He echoed Rithisal’s sentiment that Chroy needed to spend more time talking to local artists.
Chroy made “huge assumptions” about Cambodian contemporary art and “victimised” local artists, he said.
He said it was true that in the wake of the civil war Cambodia had come under the influence of external actors but that did not mean that Cambodians did not have their own ideas about what their art should be.
“Of course we have the influence from outside people, but the result is still Cambodian art,” he said.
He added: “If you look at the artwork of the Cambodian artists, it doesn’t respond only to please to the curator or the owner of the gallery. They do it because they want to express themselves, they do their own research, it’s their personal process.”
However, he liked the fact that Chroy had provoked people to think about the issues involved.
Conference co-convenor Martin Polkinghorne declined to discuss the fallout from Chroy’s presentation.
“The conference included 35 speakers and over 150 participants from all over the globe including Australia, Japan, Tawain, India, the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and France. Most attendees were Cambodian students and scholars,” Polkinghorne said.
“New and exciting research was presented on diverse areas of Cambodia’s art history only partially researched, for example the Middle, Colonial and Modern periods.
“Contemporary art was given special attention with a specific session that included some of Cambodian art’s leading thinkers, curators and artists.
“The conference was open to all people from all disciplines that relate to visual cultures.
“[Chroy] applied to speak at the conference and I think the nature of academia is that we discuss things and argue and so if we can make more discussion then that’s a good thing.”