As with all Cambodians who have been working to reclaim a vibrant Cambodian culture that was almost erased at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, I was delighted to see New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art repatriate two 10th century Khmer statues to Cambodia, where for centuries they guarded the magnificent and ancient Koh Ker temple complex.
Coming in the midst of the Season of Cambodia festival in New York City, last month’s announcement highlighted the significant successes by the government, arts organisations and international donors in preserving and promoting Cambodian arts.
Although recovering the vestiges of Cambodia’s rich tradition of artistry is crucial to connecting present generations to their roots and bringing a sense of pride back to a traumatised people, it is only the first step in building a platform in Cambodia on which its artists can improve their talents and make a crucial contribution to the development of a society that was stripped of the vast majority of its thinkers and cultural icons.
Years before the international community arrived in Cambodia to begin rebuilding the country, Cambodian artists were picking up the pieces of a broken culture.
In the 1980s, Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Buppha Devi and surviving teachers were working in refugee camps on the Thai border, teaching a new generation of classical ballet dancers who today are among the mentors and practitioners leading a re-emergence of the form.
Soon after being released from Phnom Penh’s S-21 prison, painter Vann Nath was putting his brush to the canvas to ensure that Cambodia would not forget the haunting scenes of its dark past. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Kong Nay just kept on playing, and today is world famous and one of most beloved figures in traditional Cambodian music.
The work of these icons in salvaging our culture’s past was essential. Without it, artists today would face the impossible task of starting from nothing.
But the arts in their true form are forever evolving. Passing down tradition was only the beginning of a story about contemporary arts in Cambodia. The next chapter is being written by the hundreds of artists, and dozens of organisations supporting them, who are redefining Cambodian arts and sharing their perspective with the world.
Remnants of a culture can be placed in a museum for all to see, but culture in its present form is a living, breathing thing and must be nurtured in order to thrive. Today, Cambodia has a nucleus of artists who are taking the lessons of the masters and integrating them into modern expressions of Cambodian identity.
With the tools of their forebears, they are shaping a modern vision of what the country is today, and might be tomorrow. Years of tireless work have been poured into fostering through the arts a core of intelligent and innovative young Cambodians who are now redefining their country on the world stage.
But in order for this work to have a lasting impact on the country, we have to begin investing in the next chapter of this story. These artists must be placed within an ecosystem in which they can cultivate their talent and sharpen their perspectives.
The government can lead an effort to create the necessary infrastructure to allow artists to hone their skills and speak with the same power as their international peers. We must train a group of arts managers to collaborate with these artists and ensure that their work is reaching the widest possible audience and is properly valued.
In order to engage these artists with like-minded thinkers around the world, exchange programs must be launched and fellowships created. Government authorities must enforce copyright laws to ensure that artists and their patrons can get a return on their investment of time and money.
Artists throughout the Cambodian diaspora engage with their peers in the country to infuse the arts scene here with new ideas about what it means to be Cambodian in the 21st century. The thing about artists is that they do more than just create art.
Even for those art students who don’t become professionals in their form, values are instilled through the arts that are otherwise difficult to obtain as a young person in Cambodia today. Artists make better citizens.
They understand the value of hard work and how to act harmoniously with others to create something beautiful. They are not scared to think critically about the world around them and share their ideas in a public forum.
Most importantly, they understand the significance of learning and will hand down these values to the generations of Cambodians yet to be born.
I applaud the effort by Cambodia’s government to lobby museums around the world to return artifacts that were stolen during the upheaval of the country. The momentum created by this work can be carried forward to revitalise Cambodian culture through its emerging arts scene.
Angkorian artists created beautiful works that deserve to be celebrated and preserved for posterity and it is through investment in today’s artists that Cambodia can ensure that its vibrant culture is carried into the future by making contributions to the cultivation of a more engaged, innovative and proud population.
Phloeun Prim is the director of Cambodia-based NGO Cambodian Living Arts and the CEO of the Season of Cambodia festival that was held in New York City in April-May 2013.