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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - In Lille teen Cambodian graffiti artists exhibiting alongside country's best

Kimchean Koy recontextualised a common image from Phnom Penh’s streets on a wall in Lille.
Kimchean Koy recontextualised a common image from Phnom Penh’s streets on a wall in Lille. Sovan Philong

In Lille teen Cambodian graffiti artists exhibiting alongside country's best

The work of Kimchean Koy and David Myers, both 17, has been put on display in France alongside some of Cambodia’s most famous artists

Kimchean Koy and David Myers were tired. They had just got off the plane from France, where they were attending the opening night of Lille3000: Renaissance, a four-month-long exhibition of Cambodian art that constitutes possibly the most significant international showcase of the Kingdom’s contemporary scene to date.

Kimchean and David were two of 20 artists selected for the prestigious show, where their work was exhibited alongside sculptures from Sopheap Pich on loan from the Pompidou Centre, figurines from Rithy Panh’s Oscar-nominated The Missing Picture, and an important retrospective of 25 paintings by the celebrated Leang Seckon.

The exhibition, curated by Christian Caujolle and put on display at the 13th-century Hospice Comtesse Museum in Lille, would look impressive on the CV of any artist. But for Kimchean and David, it’s particularly remarkable: the two artists are only 17 years old, are still in high school, and have never completed a paid commission.

In fact, as street artists, it’s often been hard for them to find places they’re even allowed to paint.

The teenagers both speak with an American drawl bred by an international school education. At a cafe this week, the seemingly joined-at-the-hip artists agreed that sharing a platform with Cambodia’s most celebrated artists had been intimidating.

But they have a youthful confidence and speak about their art with the fluency of more mature creatives. David, who collaborated with a French artist on a mural of an ox and a rooster (France’s national mascot) while in Lille, describes himself as being inspired by Picasso’s cubist period. “It was just intriguing to me to see how we can define organic objects using geometric shapes,” he said of his distinctive, angular aesthetic.

Kimchean, whose mural shows a street recycler with clouds rising in the shape of letters behind his cart, described his style as “more organic, more people-based”, than his friend’s.

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David Myers prepares a wall for one of his distinctively geometric paintings. Sovan Philong

For the curator of Cambodia’s contribution to Lille3000, Christian Caujolle, the inclusion of representatives of Phnom Penh’s blossoming urban art scene was imperative. The goal of Lille3000 is to showcase a complete picture of life in some of the world’s most dynamic cities: alongside Phnom Penh, there are exhibitions dedicated to Rio, Eindhhoven, Detroit and Seoul taking place around town.

“I wanted people to be able to come in and have the feeling really of Phnom Penh today,” explained Caujolle, speaking via phone from Paris.

Nonetheless, Caujolle’s point of entry when curating an exhibition about Phnom Penh remained the city’s traumatic history – its abandonment in 1975 under the Khmer Rouge, and the “staggering speed” with which modernity has bulldozed its way forward in the years since.

While there is no chronological logic to the exhibition’s presentation, Caujolle has dedicated the last room in the gallery to work by artists engaging explicitly with the Khmer Rouge.

The room, where Caujolle hopes the public will linger a while before leaving, includes a series of photographs by Kim Hak of objects banned under the Khmer Rouge, and works by Mak Remissa, whose photographs show the fall of Phnom Penh as a series of eerie paper cut-outs. A 12-minute segment of Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture will play on loop, alongside several of the film’s original clay figurines.

Caujolle is insistent that the experience of the Khmer Rouge has shaped the artistic practices of all Cambodian artists working today, even those born long after the regime ended.

“In the young generation, you have more works which are not directly linked to that period, but it’s still in the background,” he said. “Because the manner they speak about questions of identity, the future of the country, the youth ... it’s linked to reflections about what has been the evolution of the country after the Khmer Rouge period.”

It’s not a history that street artists David and Kimchean believe is particularly influential in their vibrant works. “Everyone here is connected to 1975, but [older artists] are more connected. We’re growing up in a new system,” said David.

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Artist Leang Seckon lounges on a rattan sculpture by Sopheap Pich. Sovan Philong

Kimchean agreed. “We’re certainly influenced by the Khmer Rouge through our parents and how the country is now, but as we’re young, we see things differently and might also notice things that older Khmer artists don’t.”
Kimchean and David are also distanced from the other participating artists by the lack of commercial imperatives surrounding their participation in Lille3000.

“It wouldn’t be something that you’d be able to resell,” Kimchean said of their site-specific works.

For Lille3000’s more conventional artists, the stakes are higher.

Caujolle is hoping that the high-profile showcase will help swell the scantly populated ranks of internationally recognised and saleable Cambodian artists.

“The only ones that are known are Rithy Panh ... and Sopheap Pich is known by collectors who are really deeply involved in the contemporary scene,” he said.

He thinks things might be about to change.“Most collectors don’t come for the opening because it’s too crowded, but I think a lot will go – the exhibition is four months,” he said, adding that significant Belgian and French collectors had already expressed interest in viewing the collection in more depth.

The logistical complexities of organising the exhibition, many of whose prize exhibits are out on loan from private collections or museums, means that unfortunately it is unlikely that this collection will ever be seen further afield than the city of Lille.

But Caujolle anticipates that, as well as introducing collectors to Cambodian artists, invigorating public interest may create new opportunities for the artists to mount solo shows abroad in the future, particularly in Paris.

“It’s really the beginning of the exhibition, so we’ll see in the next weeks and months. What’s sure is that both for the public and professionals it’s a discovery, an opportunity,” he said.

“I’m curious about what will happen.”

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