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Cambodian art's Aussie envoy

Cambodian art's Aussie envoy

120622_03

Kate O’Hara in front of a painting by Hour Seyha. Right: O’Hara in front of a painting by Pen Robit. View a photo gallery of Pen Robit working on a painting here. Photograph: Mike Hodgkinson/Phnom Penh Post

Since its official opening last October, Romeet has introduced the capital to the often visceral work of artists affiliated with Phare Ponlue Selpak arts centre in Battambang. 7Days spoke with gallery manager Kate O’Hara about the Romeet’s origins, where it’s heading and how she got involved.

What brought you to Cambodia from Australia’s artistic hub of Melbourne?
I was looking for a new challenge, I’d been working in Melbourne for several years since graduating from university and I wanted to find something new. It wasn’t Cambodia that I chose, but rather a job with Australian Ambassador for Youth Development. They offered a position [in Cambodia] with a dance company where I worked in research and filmmaking. The job sounded interesting and was an opportunity to do something out of my comfort zone, but where I could implement my skills and learn so much more.

Romeet is run by an NGO in Battambang. Can you explain the relationship?
It was officially opened last October by Phare Ponlue Selpak, which means “the brightness of art”. They’re an NGO that function as an arts-education centre. It opened in 1994 in Battambang, and came about through some drawing lessons that were being run in a refugee camp in Thailand. Once the refugees were repatriated back into Cambodia, they decided to create an arts school that would help disadvantaged children. Eighteen years on, a number of fantastic, well-established artists have come from this centre. They wanted to offer a platform for graduates from the school so they opened Romeet.

The art scene in Cambodia seems to be exploding right now. Since arriving three years ago, can you speculate on how the artistic landscape has changed?
The interest has risen exponentially and so has the energy. I’ve also seen a growth in the artists themselves, which has been quite rapid. When I was finishing up at Khmer Arts [the company she began with] I saw an exhibition of this artist doing an ice installation, and it just blew my mind. He also invited the audience to participate in it …they dripped paint and the form changed. At this point I decided to do more research and interview the artists and I began to discover this unique scene that’s been happening. Since then, the artists have been getting more attention and resources to present their work on a larger scale. And parallel to that you’re seeing artistic interest grow - I think it’s partly due to the economic growth of Cambodia and the increase in businesses here.

What is the relationship between the audience, buyers, the gallery and the artists themselves?
What we’re trying to encourage is more buyers and audience members from the local market; both expats and Khmers. The increase of international buyers seems to come naturally with greater media exposure of Cambodian art. I also went to the Hong Kong Art Fair where I built some great relationships. It’s quite the hub for Asian contemporary art. The local market is of course important to us as well, it would be great for Cambodian locals to support the artists, and with a rising middle class we’re hoping to see more local buyers.

What hinders Cambodians from participating in the contemporary art scene?
I think it’s a lack of experience and encounters with contemporary art, so it might be more associated with a foreign audience perhaps. We recently hosted a couple of Cambodian Fashion Week events here because that was drawing in a large local crowd – [the idea was] to show that if you’re interested in aesthetic culture and the commodities of that, perhaps you might also be interested in artwork, there is a relationship between those aspirational products and those cultural products. I guess it’s really time that will change this. We try and get Cambodian TV stations to visit each opening to report in the local press. It’s a slow build, but it is happening.

What’s critical for achieving your vision at Romeet?
Our sponsors support us in our running costs to provide this space as a platform for artists. Audience support is vital. Engagement with the media is critical, as is feedback from the media and our audience. We also want engagement from the artists we’re supporting and a stable environment for them to work in, one in which they can feel inspired. Quality materials for artists are sometimes still hard to find in Cambodia, so often artists have to go to Ho Chi Minh or Bangkok to pick up their supplies.

How are the profits divvied up between the gallery and artists?
We follow the same model that any gallery would, whether it is in Hong Kong or New York. We want to support our artists and this includes helping them source materials. The nature in which we were founded means we want to promote all artists in Cambodia; it’s our primary goal. We want to see them with an income so they can keep working. The prices that the art sells for is determined between us and the artists. It’s a collaborative exercise.

To contact the reporter on this story: Nikki Majewski at [email protected]

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