From the early 1960s, Cambodia was bombarded with Western culture, then undergoing its own seismic shift. French fashion tastes, European literature and the emerging rock and roll scene all found devoted adherents in Cambodian cities and the decade that followed saw a collection of gifted artists, filmmakers and musicians merge local and international styles to define the country’s post-independence aesthetic.
For artist and illustrator Uth Roeun, this amalgamation of local and foreign styles has been a perennial feature of Cambodian art.
“It is the Cambodian way that we get inspired by other cultures and create something else, which still preserves the characteristics of our national identity,” he says.
The 68-year-old Roeun is well known for artistic works based on traditional Khmer stories and providing cover art for classic Cambodian pulp novels in the 1960s. He notes that all book covers of the era were hand-drawn by artists at the behest of publishers, who sought works which were both simple and eye catching.
“I just wanted to keep thing simple and straightforward, because complexity is the enemy of the readers,” says Roeun.
To draw something like the art cover for the books, Uth had to learn about the story, its themes and scale it according to the size of the book’s cover.
“It was not like the huge paintings which hung up high at the cinemas,” he explained, “It was more personal and representative of the work.”
The skill that Roeun obtained in childhood through his appreciation of French art, comic strips and novels saved his life during Khmer Rouge. During the genocide, painters and other artists were not spared from the wrath of the regime’s excesses.
“I was lucky that they kept me alive, because they wanted me to draw construction plans for the Organisation,” he recalled.
In the time since, Roeun has worked in many professions as a painter, designer and illustrator. Although his decades of work illustrating comic books has been lauded, the art he created for pulp novels, like Stormy Mind of a Young Girl, Dragon Treasury and A Kidnapped Woman, are considered landmarks in the visual styles cultivated during the Sihanouk era.
Among other obvious reasons, the decline of Cambodian novels can be attributed to the drop in literacy rates between the 1960s and 1980s, and increased access to television and radio in the decades since. As Roeun remembers, the widespread availability of broadcast media led to a defining change in Cambodian lifestyles and hobbies.
“Before that, people would drop by bookstores all the time, pick up their favorite author’s books—mostly romance —and come home to read, and the characters of the popular stories were favourite topics of neighbourhood gossip.” Roeun says.
To pass on the knowledge of their craft is always an imperative of almost veteran artists. Being the president of the Association of Cambodian Artist Friends, located by Wat Phnom, he has trained more than a thousand young students who mostly end up working as graphic designers.
“I don’t mind that my students go off to be something else besides a painter,” says Roeun, “It is their choice to use their young mind to pursue their dreams, and I don’t mind because I know their future success is the product of what I have learnt for years from using these two hands of mine to paint.”
Uth Roeun on the books he illustrated:
A Kidnapped Woman, by Vong Pheung (ABOVE LEFT)
“It is an investigative story: A woman in town is dragged into a car for no reason. Other people were too shocked to do anything, except for a guy who followed the car to the place where the woman was tied up. The man found out who was behind all of these plans: it was a rich man who abused his power. At the end, the woman was successfully rescued by the kind man, who became her partner later on.”
Memories of a Prisoner at Koh Tralach, by Vin Kim (CENTRE)
“The story portrayed the lives of Cambodians during the French era. People were mistreated by the colonisers. The tax they had to pay was way higher than what they could afford. Seeing the horrible conditions of the powerless Cambodians, many activists gathered people to fight against the French. One of them was called Hem Chiev. He was well-respected by the people for his knowledge of Buddhism and fearlessness in opposing the French. He was imprisoned at Koh Tralach in Kandal province. The story features all of his memories during that period of being a prisoner.”