A month-long exhibit at Phnom Penh International Airport is providing visitors with a glimpse into a liberating transition underway in Cambodian contemporary art through a series of paintings and a sculpture from one of Southeast Asia’s most innovative galleries.
Those arriving at Phnom Penh International Airport may be more puzzled by its first ever exhibit of visual arts; than by the free-for-all that sometimes occurs at the visa-on-arrivals desk. Even the title – Contemporary: Traditional: New: Modern – betrays the fatigue with labels that is allowing Cambodia’s swiftly emerging artists to fill a void with their often visceral, bewildering and experimental work that can leave you wondering whose naïve: them or you?
The exhibit (which runs till April 23) showcases artists from the Battambang art school run by the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak (The Brightness of Art), which began as a series of art classes in Site 2 refugee camp on the Thai border in 1986. Over the past several years several of its graduates have attracted the interest of international curators as well as buyers, while Battambang town itself has acquired a reputation as an emerging arts centre.
The airport exhibit – seven paintings and one sculpture – is curated by Romeet Gallery: a Phnom Penh venue in an alley off Street 178 managed by PPS. The five artists selected are young: three are in their 20s and two are in their early 30s.
Nov Cheanick, 23, is responsible for the green cow at the arrivals gate, as well as two paintings. The cow was made from wood, bamboo and clothe. All three pieces are grouped under the title, Freedom.
He got the idea in France. “I stayed in France for three months where I saw cows weren’t tied up. Look at the cows in Cambodia, they are always tied up. I felt pity for the cows in Cambodia. I really want them to be free like the cows in France. I got the idea to paint and to make a sculpture,” Nov Cheanick explains.
Romeet Gallery manager Kate O’Hara says he’s speaking metaphorically. “Nov Cheanick is thinking why the cow is tied up and why the cow can’t be free. He considers how the cow can be untied, but it doesn’t move, even though it’s free,” she explains. “He talks about how we can be free physically but not psychologically – because we are used to being tied down.”
O’Hara says the exhibit may also prod visitors to look a bit more closely at Cambodia, to see more than the Killing Fields and the temples: to get a feel for what’s going on now.
Nov Cheanick is urging liberation. His painting of a man holding a microphone is adorned with pictures of American President Barack Obama, whose persona he uses to epitomise free speech. In Cambodia, people considered to be lower class go mute before those at higher rungs. He wants his painting to encourage them to do the opposite – amplify their voices.
“In Cambodian society the lower class always loses their freedom of speech to the higher class,” Nov Cheanick says. The same thing happens within families. “Children don’t dare to speak against their parents even when they think that they are right,” he continues. “I want people to stand up to fight for their freedom of speech.”
Nov Cheanick has had exhibits at galleries in Phnom Penh, Battambang and France, but is not represented by one gallery. He remains independent and is based in Battambang.
Pen Robit, 23, also remains based in Battambang town, though the prices of his paintings have surpassed US$1,000 apiece. In the airport show he has a single portrait of an elderly woman. It is one of six in a series he has been working on for two years. He paints on canvas with oil and enamel, producing richly textured portraits by juxtaposing lines with curves. He hovers between realism and abstraction, fusing styles with an emotion that draws you in by detail. His style is discrete and powerful at once, and like his colleagues is routed in observations that accrue from daily life.
“I saw many poor women. I could tell through their facial expressions. Then, I had an idea to paint them,” Pen Robit said. This impoverished expression can be seen at first glance, but instead of turning away the painting draws the viewer in – line by line, curve by curve. Pen Robit also connects this series with Cambodian tradition, by his use of the krama, or Khmer scarf. “In every painting I kept a krama on the woman’s head or around her neck … Scarves are a symbol of our identity, so I entitled my series Krama.”
Pen Robit is well aware that realistic portraits are more popular among Cambodian art buyers than abstract ones, but says he finds a freedom in veering into abstraction that allows him to tell stories by brushstroke.
“Actually, my background is painting look-alikes. I can paint pictures to look like photographs, and it’s easier for me to do this. But I don’t want to; it’s not as fun. The abstract piece is fun, I can play with ideas. I think a lot before I start work on an abstract piece,” he explains.
He’ll be able to continue experimenting with abstraction: All six paintings in Krama, including the one now showing at the airport, have been sold to overseas buyers. The one at the airport sold for $1,100.
Tor Vutha, 36, a teacher and co-founder of PPS’s Battambang school, painted Khmer Empire for the exhibition. It is also one of a series that has been shown at galleries in Cambodia and Thailand.
He uses coffee, gouache and paper, stretching them along a large black canvas. The style and technique juxtaposes with the subject: an Angkor-era king commanding his troops, magical tattoos and ancient Khmer script.
“I want people to be aware of their own history. Seeing Khmer scripts from the Angkor era will make people wonder and become more curious about their history,” he said. His second painting at the exhibit, Timing of Conception, is abstract.
He’s not pinned down to one style, but plays with a variety of concepts and techniques to suit a particular piece. Tor Vutha is also aware that the art scene has been slow to recover from the devastation of war, but says it has revived enough to catch the eye of foreign audiences.
Cambodian artists are no longer synonymous with “look-alike paintings”, he says.
O’Hara says she notices Cambodian artists are becoming more critical, and are experimenting with techniques and mediums to more deeply articulate what is happening in Cambodia and the wider world.