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A drawing class at RUFA, 1965. RUFA uncatalogued collection / ingrid muan papers / national museum of cambodia library

Art history forum targets students

A new initiative affiliated with Sa Sa Bassac aims to bring young Cambodians something that they can’t get at university – a lesson in art history.

Last year, artist and curator Vuth Lyno glanced around the audience at a symposium on modern architecture in Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore and realised that it looked a little different. It was “jam-packed with university students”, he says. 

So Lyno, who works as the artistic director at Sa Sa Art Projects, tested out a session on photography history with his own students. They asked more questions than ever before.

Around the same time, Roger Nelson, a PhD researcher studying modern and contemporary Cambodian art, also noticed the audience around him growing younger – and more diverse. 

But there are few opportunities for those interested in the history of art in Cambodia, even at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

“There are many Cambodians who are leading world experts on Angkorian and other antiquities, which is another kind of art history,” Nelson explains.

“But other than Lyno, I don’t know of anyone who works on researching the history of modern and contemporary art.” 

Now, the pair have collaborated on a project, Vetika Provoat Selapak (“art history forum”), which will tap into an audience of students, artists and the wider arts community with free, discussion-based events. 

The forum will host its first public event on Friday at the Bophana Center.  Vetika Provoat Selapak’s events will feature both Cambodian scholars based in-country, as well as foreign academics passing through Phnom Penh.

And for now, all organisers, speakers and hosts will be volunteers. “We start from zero budget,” Lyno laughs.

Perhaps most significantly for a field that has frequently been dominated by foreign voices, both Lyno and Nelson envision Cambodians as their target audience. 

All discussion will occur either in Khmer or in English with Khmer translation. Khmer-language materials will be plentiful: even Vetika Provoat Selapak’s Facebook page and advertisements place Khmer script before English.

“The most important audience for us is the ones that are here, who are actually the ones who will continue to grow in this field,” Lyno says. 

Lyno adds that he would like to recall the spirit of the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture, which once sat next to RUFA and hosted exhibitions and lectures that drew large local crowds. The institute closed in 2009. 

“If an audience is not there, it needs to be built,” he says. Vetika Provoat Selapak already has plans lined up through the end of this year, and the majority of speakers will be Cambodian. But discussion will almost certainly transcend the Kingdom’s borders.

A test event this Wednesday – open to those who had registered online – focused on the history of Cambodian art under the French protectorate and the way that Khmer arts were first represented in the West.

“When I say art history, we shouldn’t take a narrow view,” Lyno says. “It’s also looking through the lens of political history.” 

Accordingly, next week’s discussion, “Digital Archives and Forensic Aesthetics in Contemporary Art”, features an American speaker examining contemporary works by two Belgium-based artistic duos.

One portrays the exhumation of victims of the Spanish Franco regime, and another the death of a Mediterranean olive tree transplanted in a Brussels neighbourhood.

And Lyno has tied the topic to Vandy Rattana’s current Sa Sa Bassac exhibition, The Landscape of Time, which examines gravesites across Cambodia to trace a history apart from national narrative – to catalogue injustice through imagery.

While it may sound dense, the inter-disciplinary nature of art history is something that both organisers deem significant, and what they believe their young audience demands.

“Of course it’s always desirable to avoid unnecessary jargon and to explain unfamiliar terms and concepts,” Nelson says. “But challenging and complex ideas themselves aren’t a problem, as far as I can see.” 

Vetika Provoat Selapak’s first public event, “Digital Archives and Forensic Aesthetics in Contemporary Art”, will take place on Friday at 6pm at Bophana Center, #64 Street 200.

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