As a 20-year-old struggling art student, Em Riem grew his black hair long and wore it out. Cambodians mistook him for a Thai. He liked jewelry and clothes, and though he had little money, was guided by an innate sense of his own style.
“I was into fashion before I went to France but I didn’t know about it,” Riem, now 42, says. He is sitting in the doorway of his gallery, La Galerie X-EM Design, several blocks up from the historic campus of his old school, Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts. Today he is wearing cut-off jeans and an assortment of contemporary-looking gold bracelets and a blingy jaguar ring, with sparkling red eyes.
On the eve of his latest solo show in Phnom Penh, the artist and designer is temporarily departing from his paintings around the Khmer Rouge genocide and focusing on pulsating colour abstracts. In life, colour also spills freely into his fashion: aqua platform ankle boots, jaunty hats, bright blazers – for years, Riem has stood out from the Phnom Penh art crowd.
With soaring cheekbones and a wide, mirthful smile, his striking looks and languid frame have also earned him a modeling career on the side. In 1998, he entered a modeling competition and began to get some work, but his unconventional ‘look’ and dark skin were not fashionable, he insists.
“Then, Khmer people didn’t like black skin – they wanted bleach.”
In 2001, the graphic arts student won a French Embassy scholarship to study in Paris, at Saint-Étienne École des Beaux-arts, and another world opened up.
Paintings from Em Riem’s latest exhibition, Infinity, at the Intercontinental. Photo: Will Baxter
Riem models pieces from his own collection of art fashion. Photo: Alexander Crook
“A lot changed for me. In school here, it was very academic: we respected mostly the traditional Angkor Wat style, traditional painting . . . it was very realist. And then in France, we respected concepts and ideas and then technique,” he says. “It felt very different because here I drew portraits – that was my specialty. They were very nice, with their skin tone and with their colour.”
In France, art students, as well as being creatures of fashion and culture, were “taught to think about just ideas: abstraction, just colour, form and figurative.”
Before moving to Paris to study, Riem was unfamiliar with Picasso and Van Gough. At Saint-Étienne, a whole cannon of Western art was expected to inform his every brush stroke.
“It was very, very difficult for me the first year. But the teacher said, ‘No. Here, we don’t need nice drawings – we need technique and colour.’”
Working alongside students from across the design schools – architecture, furniture, fashion – the young Cambodian became enthralled by a world of newly discovered artists and movements. His portraits began taking on the raw and colourful Outsider Art influences of Michel Basquiat.
In the X-EM gallery on Street 178, he points to several large garish, hungry faces like this on display now.
“[In Paris] I was drawing portraits like this one. It looks like an ugly portrait, but in the school they gave students the ideas and the techniques to draw [this way]. It looks like street style, Outsider-Art style. When you learn in France, there’s a lot of art history [behind it], but here we just taught the story of art Khmer, the story of the Angkor-Wat style,” he says.
For his latest solo exhibition, Infinity, currently on show at the Intercontinental, Riem is showing large canvases in warm primary colours interrupted by gashes of biting tones.
At his gallery, similar works are stacked next to a strikingly different genre of paintings: large-scale portraits of Khmer Rouge victims, painted on stretched burlap rice bags. In the centre of the space dangle sleek, spiked lamp shades and an elegant woven rattan seat (Riem also designs furniture). The works are so eclectic visitors might well assume the gallery is the work of several different people, rather than one.
“When my paintings [became] abstract, I was thinking about what Picasso said, that some artists transform the yellow into the sun and some turn the sun into yellow. I got it. Abstract has nothing to present – just the colour, and the colour signifies freedom for the artists and also freedom for the viewer to think about it,” he says.
In 2003, while still in France, Riem again turned his hand to realism and began his portrait series on the ‘memory of genocide’of the Khmer Rouge, which he lived through as a child. Although his official age – and the one on his Facebook page – says he was born in 1977, Riem was in fact born six years earlier. The story of his age change is a common one, he explains, and came after years living in fear under the Khmer Rouge.
“My real age is 42. In my passport it says 36 because after the Khmer Rouge, when the (Vietnamese) communists came, my mother changed [my age] because if she didn’t, you could be forced to go with the millitaire [to fight the Khmer Rouge]…My mother changed my age because if the police took you when you walked to school you could show ID, that proved you were underage for joining.
Everybody changed their age!”
In April 1975, when he was four years old, his family joined thousands of others from where they lived in Kandal and were forced to move, in crushing numbers, into the countryside. Somewhere along the way, Riem’s eldest brother – a teenager – was lost in the swelling crowds. They never found him.
The family were sent to Battambang, where his parents and five siblings were put to work in different areas. Riem worked with other small children, finding wild leaves to mix with cow dung to make cakes of fuel. At night, he would meet up with his parents for dinner in a communal canteen, where they were given water, some rice and salt to eat.
“When you went to sleep you couldn’t speak together or as a family, because the Khmer Rouge cadre were downstairs of your house,” he remembers.” ‘What did you say? What did you want to say?’ they’d say. There was no speaking or talking…If you spoke, the soldier would cough loudly. You had to sleep.”
The artist has strong childhood memories of Battambang and a decade on from his first explorations of the Pol Pot era – abstract acrylics with collage and inlayed barbed wire – is still driven to painting large burlap canvas portraits of victims: married couples, those murdered at Toul Sleng, rendered in black paint, with their dates of birth and death printed boldly below. Last year he finished another portrait series this time based on photographs of women, men and children just before the four years of Khmer Rouge horrors.
“Some artists don’t [venture] very far – they stay in the Khmer style, like the [illustrative]Toul Slang style,” he says. ”I’m also talking about the Khmer Rouge, and my work is realist, but my technique - black and white, on rice bag, the numbers…. the technique is more contemporary.”
Riem is simultaneously bothered by and sympathetic towards younger artists trying to make a name for themselves. He acknowledges that he was privileged to have such a thorough art schooling in France – where he lived for seven years – but can see in much contemporary Cambodian art, perhaps like his own earlier teachers, a gap in knowledge and experimentation.
“[Contemporary art] has developed very fast, but it doesn’t have the quality. They are at the letter A – but A and Z are very far apart… you have to go very far to become an artist and you must read many, many books on artists.”
Riem is sanguine and rather polite about being excluded from the Season of Cambodia, a festival of contemporary Cambodian art set to show in New York next month.
“I don’t know how they select the artists,” he says. “I am in the highlight film (of the festival).”
Riem chose to return to Cambodia from France, he points out, where he had moved on to postgraduate study at the Higher National School of Decorative Arts of Paris.
“I could have found a job in France and lived there, but if every student went to another country and stayed there, Khmer culture would not develop and I want to develop Khmer culture, design, painting.
I came back and opened the gallery - it wasn’t just for me, it was for everybody. For Khmer people to see that this is a new Khmer style, not old Khmer apsara or Angkor art.”
Making money from art seems not to have been a great obstacle to the painter and designer. As a student Riem whipped up sentimental Angkorian scenes for the souvenir art shops near RUFA, on Street 178, where he says it was possible to earn up to $40 a sale. Instead of painting in stone greys, he rendered his paintings of Apsara bass reliefs in rainbow hues – a style he says is still copied up and down the same picture shops.
Riem has a successful commercial design business at the EM-X gallery and supplies contemporary rattan furniture and sculptural pieces to hotels and spas.
In the window of the crowded gallery, a line of glazed ceramic skulls and vessels are for sale for under $50, “for people who don’t have a lot of money to buy my paintings,” he explains.
“Also they are…a cadeau from Cambodia. And some expensive paintings. I make them in Phnom Penh and l make the ceramics in other places [in Cambodia]. Sometimes I use models and leave them with ceramics specialists to make for me.”
In France, he developed a love for what in Cambodia might be considered run-of-the-mill materials: bamboo and rattan.
“In Cambodia, in Southeast Asia, we have natural materials, like rattan, bamboo, wood also. But it takes time to grow and cut wood, maybe 60 years to100 years to cut one type of wood. In Cambodia bamboo is not special but we have massive amounts of rattan.
“I thought about my home country, while I was in France at school. Because if I was living in Cambodia I would work with rattan, because we don’t have plastic... Also the rattan artisans can do anything – without designers, I explain to them that this is a unique piece.”
Before they appear as chairs or tables, Riem’s swelling, woven rattan pieces occur to him as forms, artworks that will serve a function. He is currently working on a program with the Ministry of Mines and Energy, the Spin Project, to introduce new designs to traditional artisans, to help them boost the marketability of their work.
“I think a designer wants to play with material and artists, we play with the colour and then in sculpture, with materials like wood, stone - even paper… I don’t think it’s so different, the designer and artist.”
Riem’s father was a carpenter in Kandal and introduced him to simple technical drawing and the elements of furniture construction, when he worked with him as a teenager. Despite having the gallery open for eight years and countless shows, neither of his parents has ever visited.
“You know parents in Cambodia,” he shrugs with a smile. “When I went to France? ‘Oh, ok’ – there was no big [going-away] party.”
His family are like most hardworking Cambodian families, he says. Running the gallery and design business requires a tremendous amount of work, too.
With giant canvases stacked against the wall, giant cardboard sculptures wrapped and ready for the Intercon exhibition, polished silver objets and ceramics, I hazard a guess as to how many paintings alone he has made.
“Ooh more!” He exclaims.
Three hundred? “More! Many, many more.”
“I’m still learning now about design, because artists have no limit to learning. You always continue to learn. Everything – there’s always something to learn and think about.”