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Creating a new Khmer Aesthetic

It t has been months since this paint brush, lying on a small table stained with a variety of colours, has been used. The wooden floor of the abandoned room is covered with yellow, white, black and blue paint. This is the space formerly rented by a group of young painters, fresh out of the Reyum Institute and anxious to pursue their artistic dreams. But now it’s empty, with only long-finished works, hanging on the walls and stuffed into boxes, serving as a reminder of what was.

The small studio north of the Japanese Bridge serves as an apt metaphor for the fate of many young artists in the Kingdom. Even the country’s most ambitious and skilled artists often have to store away their dreams of commercial, or creative, artistic success and – at least temporarily – move on to other professions where they can support themselves and their families.

Khin Sokhim, a 23 year-old graduate of the Reyum Institute, said that painting is his passion, but because of financial pressures he decided to pursue other options. “I like painting as my hobby, but since I can’t profit from it, I have to do something else for my living,” he said, adding that while Cambodians are increasingly materialistic, they still place little value on art.

“Although people have money, they don’t buy artwork because paintings cannot be eaten or shown off to society,” he said, adding that too few youth appreciate the arts – a suggestion that some of his peers, however, disagreed with.

“I think most youth love art because when I exhibit my paintings, they have great admiration for me and want to learn how to draw and paint,” said Seng Visal, a 23 year-old senior at the Royal University of Fine Arts, adding that “the conditions for artists in Cambodia are getting better since we have more resources to consult with and we can research on the internet”.

The Best website
for contemporary
Cambodian art

Khvay Samnang, Woman, Hair series, 2010. This installation piece was exhibited at Java Cafe and Gallery earlier this year. For more photos of the show go to Khvay Samnang
Vuth Lyno, Untitled, Blue Angels series, 2007. See the rest of the series and another Vuth Lyno series called “Reflect“ at

Lim Sokchanlina, A Thief, My Motorbike and Me series. This photo, along with the rest of the series, was shown in PhotoPhnomPenh 2009 at Java Cafe and Gallery and can now be seen at
The site The site is the online extension of the Sa Sa Art Gallery, Cambodia’s first artist-founded and operated gallery. The six young men who started the gallery call themselves Stiev Selapak (the art rebels), and hope that their art projects will “encourage engagement with our community by hosting artist talks and welcoming student groups”, according to their site.

The website has biographies of the artists involved, along with photo slideshows of the major works of each artist. Vandy Rathana, one of the founding members, is one of the few internationally acclaimed artists to come out of Cambodia in recent years with exhibitions in Australia, China, South Korea and elsewhere. Khvay Samnang and Lim Sokchalina, who have also been involved in international art shows, are two of the most prolific artists currently working in Phnom Penh, having recently shown their work – mainly photography – at Java Café, Gasolina and the French Cultural Centre.

The collective works of the group, most of which can be seen on the site, make a convincing statement that art is very much alive in Cambodia. Have a look for yourself.

The Sasa gallery is now located in The Building on Sothearos Boulevard. For more information and lots of great art, go to

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RUFA’s upcoming art exhibition

In order to spread appreciation of art to the country’s youth, proffesors and students at RUFA are organising an art exhibition that will open on October 1 to showcase the achievements of young artists at the new IPARC Exhibition Hall, located behind the National Museum next to the university.

Portrait of King Norodom Sihamoni, one of many pieces by Seng Visal to be shown beginning next month at the IPARC Exhibition Hall next to the Royal University of Fine Arts.

Uth Roeun, the president of Khmer Artist Friends Association, agreed that the appeal of art seems to be on the rise among Cambodia’s youth. But he expressed concern that the new generation of artists is developing their own aesthetic sensibilities – often based on Western tastes – separate from that of their artistic forebears in the Kingdom.

“Most art students nowadays don’t like, or even know how to execute, traditional Khmer painting styles,” he said. While Uth Roeun said he is concerned that traditional styles may become extinct, it is not surprising that young artists trying to capture modern-day Cambodia often come up with a blend of Cambodian, Asian and Western styles.

“We are now being influenced by modern art, including singing, dancing and ways of dressing,” said Leang Seckon, 36, an independent artist who has exhibited his work around the world. While he said that “youth love art”, he added that he is also concerned about the state of art in the Kingdom.

“At the first glance, art seems so developed,” he said. “However, if we look more deeply, both old and modern arts are deteriorating.” He also explained that, due to piracy and a lack of education on the arts, young artists aren’t encouraged to create something truly unique or provocative.

Seng Kimly, a lecturer in Khmer art history at RUFA, said that youth seem to prefer modern, foreign art largely because it is easier to access, given their exposure to Western art forms.

“Youth like watching break dance because they can understand it immediately upon seeing it,” he said. “Youth don’t like Khmer traditional arts, such as painting or dancing, because they cannot see the abstract meaning within.”

Media has also played an active role in cultivating young people’s preference for foreign art, according to Seng Kimly.

“Media outlets broadcast only foreign or modern art, so youth are influenced by the art they see and hear every day,” he said.

Some might not define the art being produced by the Kingdom’s young artists as “Cambodian” or “Khmer”, since it doesn’t follow the country’s established traditions. But the trend towards new styles and imagery represents the changes in Cambodian society as a whole.

While traditional arts have an important place in modern-day Cambodia, today’s young artists don’t live in the same place that inspired Apsara dancing, Lakhon theatre and the Chapei dong veng; they live in a globalising Cambodia, and the work they are creating sheds light on how Cambodians will define themselves in years to come.



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