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Expressing environmental concerns through the Khmer scarf

Artist Oun Savann sports a Cambodian krama. Peter Phoeng
Artist Oun Savann sports a Cambodian krama. Photo supplied

Expressing environmental concerns through the Khmer scarf

A new exhibition from established Siem Reap artist Oun Savann uses Cambodia’s most recognisable item of clothing to tell tales of plants and trees

With a new exhibition opening at Joe to Go last night, local artist Oun Savann marked a return to familiar ground, albeit on an unfamiliar canvas.

In A Touch of Kroma, the Battambang-born artist explores his long-held concern for the environment using the ubiquitous Cambodian krama as the background for his graphic paintings of plants and trees.

The images of the trees are also a means for him to take a look at his own roots.

“I wanted to show the connection between the natural materials of the krama, which we use for everything in Cambodia, and the environment, and also relate it back to our ancient culture,” explained Savann, who has been a central character in the Siem Reap art scene since his days as an assistant curator at the now defunct Arts Lounge at the former Hotel de la Paix.

“We have used the krama since ancient times, maybe only the style is different now.

This is why I have painted the trees in a style similar to what we find in the carvings at Angkor. I connect them all in these pieces.”

Cambodians use kramas for everything: sling, tow-rope, sunscreen, mosquito swatter, tree-climbing prop, towel, belt, bathing cloth, or just as a scarf.

Oun wanted to take this extraordinary versatility further and use them as house decoration.

At seven metres by two metres, his krama-canvases are larger than the usual cloth.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A leafy vine stretches across a krama canvas. Photo supplied

However, he wanted to keep everything else as they commonly are, so the basic check pattern remains the same.

This is not Savann’s first exhibition at Joe to Go, or in Siem Reap.

The cafe is associated with long-established NGO Global Child, where Savann has been teaching art to the young program students for several years.

He also teaches at Green Gecko, and taught at the Landmine Museum.

The 32-year-old also uses the classes to explore themes of the environment, speaking with the students about Cambodia’s forests, pollution and wild animals. “I feel very afraid about the future,” he said. “The next generation, these students, will be very affected by what’s happening now.

“They understand that it’s important, and that things need to change.”

The environment is also a fundamental theme for the Giant Puppet Project, for which Oun is on the team as a project manager. Every year, the paper puppet panoply includes an animal on the verge of extinction.

Two years ago, they even made an ozone puppet. The project’s parade through Siem Reap has been used as a powerful tool for conveying social and environmental messages since its inception.

But despite all his expansive projects, he is playing on a small canvas in Siem Reap itself: since the closure of the Arts Lounge in 2012, there remains no large-scale space dedicated to art.

“That’s why I chose Joe to Go,” said Savann. “It’s small, but it’s a start. We need more and bigger spaces in Siem Reap. Art can make a huge difference to people’s lives.

More artists means more jobs, and more cultural opportunities for people to explore.”

A Touch of Kroma is at Joe to Go, Street 9 until November 2015.

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