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An artist at the Yamada Art School hones his craft. Victoria MØrck Madsen

Honing their skills under the master

Why one Japanese art teacher is sending his students back to the drawing board

In the three years since Takakazu Yamada opened the Yamada Art School in Phnom Penh, many students have come through the doors of his Boeung Trabek studio. Few, however, have stayed.

The art teacher, who honed his craft under the tutelage of Japanese master Eiki Tsukioka, is possessed by a perfectionism that some find off-putting.

“Studying the basics isn’t easy,” he explained, when asked about the high dropout rate. “So some students stop when they need to continue.”

On a visit last week to the small studio where his pupils practise, his traditional methodology was clear to see: a group of students working solely in pencil were perched next to their easels, working away at detailed sketches of a classical bust.

The sketches were technically precise, and perfectly shaded. “After only one week or one month, you cannot get this skill,” Yamada said with pride.

Yamada’s approach may be old-fashioned but, for the artists that have stuck with it, it is paying dividends. Seven of his students are currently exhibiting works as part of Crossed Views on Cambodia, a show organised by French artist Ricardo Casal at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.

It’s the latest in a flurry of recent exhibitions featuring work from Yamada’s students, including displays at the Intercontinental Hotel and at Meta House.

According to Ricardo Casal, himself a figurative painter, Yamada is providing young artists with an education that is sorely lacking at the country’s top art institutions.

“The teachers at RUFA [Royal University of Fine Arts], or in any case the ones I’ve met, they may be good drawers, but they don’t have the technical skill,” said Casal, speaking at the Bophana Centre last week.

“What [Yamada] does is important, and he’s the only one doing it. I don’t have his means.”

Thun Dina, who began studying with Yamada in 2013, agrees. “In RUFA, you always copy from photos, and the teacher never came to teach us and tell us the mistakes we’d made in the picture,” said the 26 year old, who is now also a part-time teacher at the Yamada Art School.

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From left to right: Thun Dina, Takakazu Yamada and Em Pesey. Victoria mØrck madsen

“But here it’s different. The teacher comes and teaches us how to draw and make things look 3D.”

When seen in a group show, artists from the Yamada school stand out. Their style is assured, and they have a distinct preference for figurative realism: detailed portraits of Cambodian characters, often set against relatively one-dimensional backdrops.

According to Yamada, the technical skill required to achieve this style of portraiture puts it beyond the reach of most Cambodian artists. “They cannot draw directly by hand, so it’s always abstract or contemporary,” he said.

“It looks so interesting,” he said of the artists graduating from the contemporary art school Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang. “But this basic skill is false – it’s still a weakness.”

Yamada first visited Cambodia in 1993 on the insistence of his revered professor Eiki Tsukioka.

“I fell in love with Cambodia because I felt that here, the natural landscapes and Cambodian people were a very natural fit.

I never felt that in Japan. Landscapes were landscapes and people were people. But here, I always draw them together.”

When he became a professor at RUFA in 2007, he discovered students with the raw ability necessary to become great artists. “They have such good talent,”

he said, insisting that there was no reason why Cambodian artists couldn’t reach the same level of skill and renown as their Japanese counterparts.

Thun Dina and Em Pesey are two of the artists that best demonstrate how Yamada believes this raw talent can be nurtured.

Both men have been studying at the school alongside their RUFA course for the past three years. Like Dina, Pesey also serves as a part-time teacher.

Botha artists have exhibited widely and won prizes for their compelling portraits of everyday Cambodians. Both men paint in a realistic style, although Pesey prefers to keep brush strokes rough and visible, whereas Dina has a smoother style.

“They are always in competition,” said Yamada, laughing. “They grew up together and are always [painting] together. Both artists have been awarded leave to compete in the 97th edition of the prestigious Shinseisaku Exhibition, and will be flying to Japan later this month to attend the opening ceremony.

Yamada is proud that his approach is paying off, and believes that it has the potential to bring more rigour to Cambodia’s contemporary art scene in the long term.

“Content is very important, and the imagination is very important,” he insists. “But if no one draws correctly at first then the content won’t be real.”

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