In the playground of the Krousar Thmey school in Boeung Keng Kang II on Wednesday afternoon, artist Simon Morda-Cotel, or Wose, sat on the second level of some makeshift scaffolding, methodically painting a wall. Two of the school’s students looked up in awe, and another, 21-year-old Somphors, worked next to him as a volunteer assistant applying a coat of yellow paint.
Across town, French artists Julien Croyal and Loic Kessler were painting an elaborate ocean scene on an outdoor wall at Dib Club on Koh Pich, while Nepali artist Kiran Mahrjan had just begun a mural down an alleyway off Street 240. Meanwhile, Cambodian street artists like Davido, 19, and up-and-comers Kakada Yi and Ket Monnyreak, had already finished their murals, which are ready for viewing all throughout the city. The frenzy of activity is in preparation for the third edition of the Cambodia Urban Art Festival, an expatriate-run celebration of the city’s burgeoning street art scene.
Organisers Laetitia Troussel, Chifumi and Theo Vallier – both long-time Phnom Penh streets artists – said this year’s festival is not radically different from previous incarnations, but is a continuation of the work begun three years ago.
“When I arrived five years ago the whole idea of urban art in Cambodia was very new,” Chifumi said. “The idea was to develop it and give people the desire to create and also to see more art.”
For this year, international artists from France, Thailand, Nepal and Canada were brought in and have been painting all over the city. Among them is Fonki Yav, a celebrated Khmer-Canadian artist living in Montreal, who just began a mural at the Canadian International School yesterday.
There will be a launch party tonight at The Mansion, with live painting and sculptures as well as music, a full-day party on Saturday – again with live painting – and then a tuk-tuk tour on Sunday taking spectators to see each new work, before the closing party at Dib Club that night.
One of the biggest changes this year is the fact the organisers are on their own financially, as the French Institute is no longer a sponsor. That is part of the reason why the new works are affiliated with businesses, schools or other sponsors. Despite this creating logistical and financial pressure, there are some upsides.
“Out of all the murals we did for the festival last year, there’s almost none left,” Chifumi said. “Because the funding is changed this year, they sponsor the festival by buying walls. And at the same time they take care of them. I think this way, in 10 years, we’ll still see the work.”
One of these sponsored walls is on The Mansion, a charmingly derelict French-colonial building and venue, painted by Davido. Despite being just 19, this is his third year participating in the festival – leading Theo Vallier to jokingly refer to him as a “veteran”.
Davido always incorporates animals into his work and this piece features two water buffaloes – “a symbol of agriculture” – on either side of a mash-up of the country’s iconic structures, like the Independence Monument.
“What I want to show through the mural is the strength of the Cambodian people over time,” he said.
A local newcomer to the festival is 21-year-old Kakada Yi, whose mural next to The Mansion, on a wall belonging to construction company LBL, depicts two men and one woman in the traditional dress of Lakhon Khol – or masked theatre – including the mask of Hanuman.
According to Davido, Yi paints with both hands at one time, and got attention recently for a YouTube video in which he painted two portraits of former King Norodom Sihanouk – one young and one old – at the same time.
Though locals were creating street art before Chifumi and Theo Vallier’s arrival, they see a groundswell of energy in the scene among young artists. “The community is growing in Cambodia,” Vallier said. “The young generation is really trying to do their own thing.”
The Cambodia Urban Art Festival begins tonight at The Mansion at 6pm. For more information, visit Facebook. Tickets for the tuk-tuk tour are on sale at Bong Bong Bong Bar for $5-$8.