In the airy, cement-floored printmaking studio of Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA), Fernando Aceves Humana watches a student heave at a wooden ship-like wheel that allows a marble slab to pass through a new lithographic press.
The press – an elegant honey-coloured wood and iron contraption built in Vera Cruz, Mexico - is the latest addition to the school’s Char studio (meaning ‘etching’ in Khmer), started in September last year with the donation of a large steel roller press and the patronage of some of Mexico’s most prestigious printmakers. It’s the first print workshop in Cambodia, provided free for students by Mexican teachers who hope to popularise the art form.
The student peels off the thick ivory printmaking paper to reveal a delicate grey and black toned picture of roses. The process for the oil-based technique of lithography is a fickle one, however, and the colour has not translated evenly. Another Mexican teacher advises starting again – which means grinding away the whole painstakingly inked design from the surface of the stone and re-drawing.
The Mexicans are perfectionists and they are determined to instil the same dedication to technique in their Khmer students – the country’s future in the medium depends on it.
“It would be our dream if one day we can see a growth of printmakers,” Aceves Humana says, “I come from Oaxaca where there are 40 private studios.
In the 1970s there was a big movement and now it’s part of the tradition.”
With just one other lithographic press recorded in all of Cambodia – in 1899 - printmaking has come late to the Kingdom.
In 1918, when German print expressionism was at its peak and after Picasso’s powerful le repas frugal lithographs – RUFA opened its French doors to a new generation of 20th century Cambodian artists. With a curriculum of painting, sculpture, wood and silverwork and textiles, the focus of the early royal family-founded university was on the immense art tradition of ancient Cambodia, explains Chy Rotha, chief of academic affairs at RUFA.
When it reopened as a college in 1979, after the Khmer Rouge had killed 90 per cent of the country’s artists, RUFA was too busy trying to preserve what remained of the Kingdom’s destroyed cultural realm to create new departments.
Now, after 23 years of rebuilding and re-educating, a printmaking studio is a welcome investment.
“It’s important to include it in our academic year – (we want) modern skills and subjects. For a long time our students only thought about sculpture from the ancient times,” Rotha says. “We want to open their minds...that’s very important for our mission.”
Looking at the recently acquired presses - like hand crushing machinery from the industrial revolution - and the wall of traditional lithograph editions printed on thick German paper, printmaking seems like the least modern of arts. But that’s where its value lies, says Javier Arean, another artist in the visiting team of four.
In the future, he envisions local printmaking studios manufacturing their own presses; a self-sufficient industry springing up in the provinces. Once you’ve got the equipment, he argues, the cost of production is low.
“Lithography is more like fine arts but it’s not expensive – it’s nice work,” fellow artist Carlos Pez says. “If you can sell one of these prints for $100 and it costs you $6 (to make): it’s nothing. “In some places in Phnom Penh, a coffee is the same price as in New York and Mexico City. It’s the same with lithography. You can sell it for international prices.”
The printmaking collective – started by well-known painter Francisco Castro Leñero- arrived last year to deliver workshops and accompany the $4,500 roller etching press to the newly designated print studio. Once here, members taught RUFA fine arts students how to engrave on metal plates and produced a stylish portfolio of prints, with works by students, teachers and established Cambodian artists like Pich Sopheap and Vann Nath, the S-21 survivor, to sell and for posterity.
It was at this time that Vann Nath passed away suddenly, Fernando tells me. Everyone donated the money of the sold works to help cover his medical expenses.
The Mexicans see parallels between Cambodia’s nascent art scene and Mexico’s in the 1970s, when a printmaking movement saw smalltown presses pop up around Oaxaca and Vera Cruz.
The direction that the studio will take – whether it will become its own proper university department and if it can be hired out for income – is under discussion, but Aceves Humana is pleased that in the year since the first workshop, students have been using it to pursue printmaking in their own time.
On a Thursday morning, four young men are concentrated around the smudgy workshop table, following the involved written instructions the Mexicans have written, on how to ink a lithograph stone.
“It is a constant game against oil and water,” advises Pez.
Happy to take over the reins when the teachers return home, is painting and photography lecturer Chan Vitharin. He is one of the few artists to have studied the processes before, in Thailand, and is a past student of RUFA.
“I think lithography is close to painting and photography and I can learn their techniques. It’s a new technique for the faculty too.”
He vaguely remembers a French printmaker coming to teach lino and wood cutting once before, and introduces me to 76-year-old sculptor Chan Sim, also an instructor at RUFA, with the distinction of having taught before and after the Khmer Rouge. Still heading a large classroom of young uniformed students, all drawing quietly, he says he remembers an American printmaker arriving to teach textile printing in the late 1950s.
“Every Saturday the students would learn with the American,” he says. “A print studio is a good thing.”
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