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Arts on a roll

Contemporary painters show potential

At what point does an artistic coterie officially become a "movement"? Is it too early to describe challenging local artwork as "Khmer Contemporary"?

In a 15-day flurry of creative expression ending on December 24, 20 Cambodian artists - with works ranging from elaborate bamboo sculpture to pastel paintings of half-eaten meals - presented individual installations in nine venues scattered across the breadth of downtown Phnom Penh.

The consecutive shows, known collectively as the Visual Arts Open (VAO), were hailed in a recent issue of Arts Asia Magazine as the first contemporary art exhibition in Cambodia.

The whirlwind pace of the event's evolution has left its organizers breathless. Its success has members of the Phnom Penh arts community keen for more art festivals and glowing about Cambodia's potential as a hip hotspot for cutting-edge art.

"The arts are on a roll in Cambodia," said Charley Todd, senior project adviser for Cambodian Living Arts and an initial sponsor of VAO. "What we are going to see is more and more of this kind of event. We hope the government will see that the arts are a magnet for economic development and that investing in festivals and events is an important factor in creating cultural tourism."

The event, which garnered the participating artists more than $15,000 through individual sales, was the brain child of indefatigable Cambodian artists Linda Saphan and Sopheap Pich. The pair, who together with Erwan Chevalier form a contemporary artists association called Saklapel, worked for eight months to make VAO a reality and, as Sopheap puts it, "galvanizing Phnom Penh's contemporary artists."

"We were absolutely surprised by the result; it exceeded by five times what we had expected," said Sopheap, a 34-year-old Cambodian sculptor who went to the US as a refugee in 1984 and eventually earned a Masters in painting from the School of the Art at the Institute of Chicago in 1999. "The main bulk of our ambition was to put contemporary Cambodian art on the map. Now we're focused on building the contemporary arts community - it didn't exist before."

The artists assembled by Saphan and Sopheap come from different generations, backgrounds and artistic training. The common links are only their nationality and commitment to create vital "contemporary" art neither commercialized nor aligned with traditional Cambodian art forms.

"Earlier this year we decided our goal was to see if we could connect with some local artists interested in making fresh work; strong work of their own ambition and not so much dictated by customer orders, or making work to please foreigners, or following themes given by NGOs," said Sopheap. "It's one thing to sit around complaining; it's another thing to sit around making art. We like artists who express themselves through art, not just talking."

VAO was initially funded by what Saphan claims is Cambodia's first art auction held in July at Java Express Café. The auction sold all 15 pieces donated by the artists and raised the $3,420 in start-up capital needed to launch the project.

According to Saphan, a 30-year-old painter who moved to Canada with her family in 1982, there are plans to have a VAO event every two years.

"Our biggest project for 2006 is an international artist colony where different artists come together," she said. "We're also looking for corporate sponsors. Our wish list is a residency, a contemporary art museum and a proper gallery that involves artists in a professional manner."

Lofty goals from a group that emptied its entire budget into the VAO event and earned no profit or commission from its art sales. But if the success of VAO is any indication, the Saklapel team may be poised to turn ambition, idealism and organizational skills into a long-term foothold in Cambodia's nascent contemporary art scene.

"We don't want to see contemporary art become the international signature of Cambodia in ten years. We want to see it now," said Sopheap. "We're running, we're not cruising."



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