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Un-masking Cambodia

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What happens when a group of 40 prominent and up-and-coming artists are given an identical mask on which to express their deepest creative desires? On May 24 Phnom Penh will find out as they gather at the Plantation Hotel for the Cambodia Mask Project.

The artists, 27 Cambodian and 13 foreigners with deep ties to Cambodia, have each been given an about 60cm by 60cm papier-mâché mask to paint or adorn any way they want. All 40 masks will be available for purchase via a silent auction for the 10 days following the opening, with cash raised channeled into a fund to promote contemporary art here.

The project is the brainchild of Josh Weil, his wife Anya and brother Seth, directors of Empty Space Productions, but Reykjavik native Steinunn Jakobsdottir is managing the event with a small team of dedicated helpers.

“It’s a really exciting project, it’s great to see these artists from all over the country come together, which might never happen otherwise,” the bubbly native of Iceland said.

The artists are an eclectic bunch – painters, photographers, graffiti artists, designers and sculptors – with some already well known internationally. Em Riem, for example, has had an exhibit at the UN headquarters and has shown his work in London, Paris and Hong Kong, among other cities.

Participants Khchao Touch and Peap Tarr have also showcased their work abroad extensively. The goals, organisers say, are twofold: to ensure that younger and emerging Cambodian artists have access to similar opportunities and to raise the profile of Cambodian art in the region.

The masks were designed by local mask maker En Sokha, based on three of the faces at Bayon Temple, though it took three prototypes before he got the perfect version. “It was important to make sure there was no religious connection, we didn’t want any of the artists to feel constrained or uncomfortable working with the masks,” explained Jakobsdottir. “All artists were told about the nature of the project and to look at the mask as a blank canvas [and] that they had 100 per cent creative freedom.”

Most of the masks have been delivered, turning Jakobsdottir’s apartment into a staging ground for the gallery opening. Themes addressed are Cambodia-centric, ranging from corruption to love, environmental concerns to family ties. Some artists have embraced the blank-canvas idea, but many have chosen to work within the confines of the facial features. “They have managed to apply their own unique styles, you can recognise many of the artists just by their masks,” Jakobsdottir said.

Curating a project of this size from scratch was not easy. “Funding is always difficult, but it is especially hard for new arts projects,” Jakobsdottir said. “Even getting the artists to give up their time was tough at first, but once we got about 10 on board it was a sort of snowball effect.” Eventually they had to cap the number at 40 due to logistics, but they hope to expand in coming years.

“We definitely don’t want this to be a one-off, what we do next year will depend a lot on the final outcome and the artists’ feedback, but we want this to be a strong annual event that draws awareness to contemporary art in Cambodia and provides an outlet for up-and-coming local artists.”

The team expects a modest beginning for the Cambodian arts fund (already set up in the United States), but are optimistic that in a few years it will be a key tool for promoting and supporting of projects nationwide.

Jakbosdottir said the public’s reaction to the masks will be key. “Of course, it depends how much people bid, but they are all amazing artists and it’s a chance to own a really unique Cambodian piece!”

The Cambodia Mask Project opens on Thursday May 24 at 6pm at the Plantation Hotel (28 Street 184, between Norodom Blvd and Street 19). A silent auction runs through June 3 and the masks can be viewed at http://www.cambodiamaskproject.org/

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