One of the fascinating aspects of living in a rapidly growing city like Siem Reap is watching the clash of old and new as hotels spring up next to pagodas and streets become unrecognisable to people who lived in them years before.
One man who feels this sense of change keenly is former Artisans d’Angkor artistic director Lim Muy Theam, who said the city is in a state of “permanent evolution”, a situation he has replicated in his own home and studio on the outskirts of Siem Reap where the rooms are purposely expanded, demolished and remodelled on an ongoing basis since it was first constructed in 1998.
Stepping inside the house gives visitors the feeling they are embarking on a walking tour of Cambodian art history and Lim Muy Theam’s own artistic development.
Each room contains paintings, sculptures and furniture exhibits designed during his time at Artisans d’Angkor, as well as more recent examples of his solo projects. Many of these express the initial sense of displacement he experienced when returning to Cambodia as an adult after spending his childhood raised overseas by adoptive French parents.
The decision by Lim Muy Theam to open his house to the public, and also use it as a studio for 25 apprentices, represents an extension of the work he has done to promote the visual arts in Cambodia since returning from France in 1995, according to the director of Cambodia Living Arts Phloeun Prim.
He said: “The house displays Theam’s artistic development and his style of visual expression, and by training apprentices and opening his workshop to the public he is seeking to pass on his skills and experience.”
During a tour of his workshop, Lim Muy Theam explained he is working on a series of lacquered polychrome paintings based on photographs from the Khmer Rouge period displayed at the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. Many of the deeply personal paintings feature identical red-painted foreground figures set against different historical backdrops taken from the photographs reflecting a “as more things change the more they stay the same” view of Cambodian history.
Lim Muy Theam said that while each painting is set at a different time and place, the plight of the peasants and refugees depicted in them has remained the same throughout Cambodian history.
“The background changes; sometimes it’s during the Khmer Rouge or the Vietnamese periods ... the people remain the same. The government never takes care of the poor people.”
Lim Muy Theam’s sister Lim Maddy recently moved to Siem Reap from Paris with her family to assist him with his administrative affairs.
She said: “The principle aim of Theam’s House is to invite people to discover Khmer art and to pass on Theam’s skills to younger artists. There are paintings for sale in the gallery but it doesn’t matter as much to us if people buy or not.”
Lim Muy Theam explained that to achieve the polished lacquer finish on his paintings he usually sketches an image on a wooden board. He then paints over it up to 10 times with layers of different coloured acrylic paint before sandpapering back the layers until achieving the right colour composition.
Former Cambodia Living Arts board president Charley Todd said he purchased one of Lim Muy Theam’s lacquered paintings as an investment and believes international interest in the artist’s work will grow.