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Creating an avenue for Cambodian urban art

Tony Francis in front of a piece by urban artist FONKI (left) and Bryan Beyung (right).
Tony Francis in front of a piece by urban artist FONKI (left) and Bryan Beyung (right). Hong Menea

Creating an avenue for Cambodian urban art

In creating the first international urban art gallery in Phnom Penh, Tony Francis is trying to jumpstart the street art movement – and put it on the global radar.

For years, Cambodia’s urban arts scene has been slowly percolating – and it has been doing so without the help of Tony Francis. With established artists like FONKI, Chifumi, Peap Tarr and Theo Vallier – all either Cambodians or foreigners with close ties to the Kingdom – urban art has become more and more visible, on city walls, on clothes and in schools and restaurants. But Francis, a lanky 38-year-old London native who moved to Cambodia two years ago after five years in Thailand, thinks now is the time for it to move to the next level.

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Street artist Daniel Ou works on a mural as part of the 2016 Cambodian Urban Art Festival. Athena Zelandonii

That is why he has set up Kbach Gallery – a high-end showroom of the work of international and Cambodian urban artists targeting major art markets – and the soon-to-open Kbach Studio, a more experimental home for urban artists to host events and collaborate. Francis is in essence the facilitator of a scene that already sprouted organically – flying artists in from around the world for projects, connecting muralists to walls and even to equipment like spray cans, and, for a select group of artists, connecting their pieces to international buyers.

Francis’ story is in some ways typical of that of many expatriates in Cambodia; he worked a corporate job, mostly in sales, in London, and was both successful and completely disillusioned.

“I was caught in the rat-hole like everybody else in the Western world,” he said. He was gifted a plane ticket to Thailand, which ended up changing the trajectory of his life. “I went back to London and I was sitting on the Tube and I thought, ‘I can’t be here anymore. I have to go back to Asia,’” he said.

So Francis moved to Bangkok, where he worked as a project manager on “high-end closing projects”, helping clients navigate business environments throughout the region.

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A depiction of the Naga by Gregory Gosselin at the gallery. Hong Menea

“I didn’t enjoy making money for other people and I didn’t enjoy selling something I had no belief in,” Francis said, sitting in his office looking down on the work of some of the country’s most celebrated urban artists. “I may have exchanged lots of zeros in my bank account for beautiful art but I couldn’t be happier. I’d do it again tomorrow.”

A brand to ‘represent’ street-art community
By Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Daniel Ou in Phnom Penh, one of the founders of Omens.
Daniel Ou in Phnom Penh, one of the founders of Omens. Heng Chivoan

The fashion brand Omens launched yesterday, presenting their first line of streetwear with the goal of giving street art lovers a way of showing their true colours, says co-founder Daniel Rathmony Ou.

The 22-year-old Ou, himself a long time Phnom Penh street artist, spearheaded the project along with fellow artist Sovivorth “Mike” Orpov, who together make up the YSK (or “You Should Know”) urban art duo.

“We wanted to do something more, and involve the people that support us and enjoy the arts and supported the arts,” he said. Ou designed the clothes with Mike as a co-designer.

Ou, who moved to the Kingdom from Los Angeles, California, nearly eight years ago, said he’s been making art ever since he can remember. In Phnom Penh, he began doing street art around 2012.

“At first it was kind of a struggle – we thought it was all cool and all, but then it got harder. Especially after the white-wash on the White Building,” he said, referring to when the Phnom Penh municipal government painted over several murals throughout the city – notably one adorning the north face of the White Building.

“We definitely got more aware of what we did and we wanted to make sure that our message was not rebellious, for politicians to [not] see that art is a way to rebel. It can be, but that’s not what we want to exactly portray,” he said.

For him, making art – and launching the brand – is about pushing a different boundary in the Kingdom: proving that an artist can make a living off their work.

“It’s been a thing that’s paid for the rent, paid for the beers, but you’re really not thriving,” he said.

It also fits the setting of the launch: Kbach Gallery, where the top tier of Cambodian urban artists sell their work to a global audience.

“We’re trying to aim for that kind of level of work,” he said. “It’s really showing that there’s a generation of artists who still want to inspire.”

For him, it all links back to the brand, the logo for which is a wolf-head.

“The qualities of wolf, being instinctive and untamed, that’s the idea behind art – there’s no limits to creativity,” he said, adding that the idea of “love” and “unity” wolves represent as pack animals is also fitting to the community of artists.

“So we created the logo and gave it the name Omens, which has a prophesying significance.”

Francis insists that he is not just selling art, but the artists themselves, by connecting buyers to their work and by promoting them locally and globally. FONKI, a Cambodian-Canadian street artist who grew up in Montreal but has been returning to the Kingdom to work on projects for the better part of a decade, is perhaps Francis’s most celebrated client. At an opening party for the gallery in March, two of his pieces sold for $9,000 each, to an English and Danish buyer, respectively.

The two finally met after Francis pestered him by email to sit down for a chat earlier this year. When he finally came to the office, FONKI remembers, he thought Francis looked like a CIA officer, with a folder set aside for each artist, including one dossier on him.

“In Cambodia you get a lot of people proposing you plans,” Fonki said. “I think it’s about finding the right people with their hearts in the right place. [At the meeting] I said, ‘This guy looks serious. Let’s give him a shot.’”

For the opening show at Kbach, FONKI made an acrylic piece called Rebirth that shows a young, smiling Cambodian girl standing among lotus flowers. A flower burns in her hands as a red krama twists around her legs – a common motif among urban artists in Cambodia. For him, the krama’s association with the Khmer Rouge makes it a potent symbol of the need to take back what was destroyed.

“I had a discussion with my aunt, and she said, ‘Why do you wear that krama? I don’t like it.’ I understand your pain but the Khmer Rouge took everything from you. From your family, your dignity, a lot of stuff. Don’t let them take a colour or your scarf,” he said.

FONKI said the scarf in the painting is intended to resemble a python in some ways, on its way to swallowing the girl up. But for him, it is actually opening up, revealing the girl. “She’s sort of born from it,” he said. “It’s soft but also really intense and that’s what Cambodia is.”

FONKI works within the school of “Kbach” street art, in which certain loosely defined but quintessentially Cambodian elements are fused with modern styles. In Khmer, kbach refers specifically to the ornamentation often seen above doorways and on ancient temples. But it also entails certain movements, such as those of Apsara dancers, and is seen as conveying a spiritual power. For Francis, the connective tissue among all the artists he works with is that they incorporate elements of this style.

“It all has a distinctly Cambodian feel, whether it’s been painted by a Cambodian, it’s a pic of a Cambodian, or it’s the kind of graffiti style that looks like Sanskrit writing,” he said.

While the Cambodian style is mostly about aesthetics, there are also certain parameters within the subject matter. Politics is typically to be avoided, as is violence or anything sexual. David Myers, a young local street artist, says that the older generation – in other words, 25 and above – works within this style but that up-and-coming artists are branching out. “Our work doesn’t have anything that represents Cambodian culture except for the meaning,” he said. “For us, our work represents how we view or respond to society and culture.”

Nonetheless, Myers praised the addition of the gallery and studio to the local scene, saying that before, all the artists knew each other but were dispersed. Having one hub has fostered more collaboration. And while Francis’ gallery is focusing mostly on established artists, like Theo Vallier, Bryan Beyung, Oliver Bonnard and others, his goal is to have up-and-coming locals learning from their more experienced peers.

For the annual Cambodian Urban Art Festival in December, which Kbach Gallery will sponsor, a range of international talent will be flown in. FONKI, meanwhile, will be in Cambodia for much of next month for a series of events organised by the gallery, including an auction at the Sofitel Hotel.

The visits by world-class artists helps to pass on the skills already developed in much of the Western world – a fact FONKI knows all too well from having gone through the learning process himself.

“I started in Montreal by seeing graffiti from mentors,” he said. “Street art blew up everywhere around the world and it took a while to come to Cambodia. The youth need to be exposed to start it and to push art with a Cambodian flavour, not some New York style. It comes back to identity mixed with our values and respect.”

Q&A/ LISA MAM, STREET ARTIST

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Street artist Lisa Mam at work on a mural. Photo supplied

Street artist Lisa Mam tends to portray powerful women in her work, which also incorporates elements of her Khmer heritage. Mam, who also happens to be a dentist by training, has exhibited work in countries such as Thailand, France, New Zealand, the Maldives and the US. While on assignment in Thailand, she took the time to chat with Cindy Co about her experiences as being one of the few female street artists in Cambodia, and her inspirations.

What kind of subjects or topics do you like to portray in your art?
Many of the themes I like to portray in my art are beautiful, powerful strong women mixed in with elements of my Khmer heritage – that’s really what I love to paint and visualise. Originally, women in Khmer history, before Indian and French influence, were the powerful ones in society. So I like to imagine through my art what that must have been like.

It seems that the Cambodian street art community is mostly male. How do you feel about being one of the few female street artists? Are there any challenges and benefits that come with being a female street artist?
I think there are not many Cambodian street artists in general at the moment. I never really thought much about being one of the few female street artists in Cambodia.
I believe around the time I started doing my street art in Cambodia there was not really much of a scene yet. I think it was really when [my husband] Peap Tarr and I started painting more around town that people really noticed there was something happening with a street art movement that had a Khmer theme to it . . . Since then I think others have become inspired by our form of Khmer-style street urban art.

What would you say to other women who might want to become street artists too?
Just do what you believe in and never give up on your passion. Don’t let other people judge you because they can never be you and would never know what you feel or think. So just be yourself and believe in yourself and others will believe in you too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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