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The building blocks of a national gallery

Artist Em Riem with a portrait of George Groslier.
Artist Em Riem with a portrait of George Groslier. Eliah Lillis

The building blocks of a national gallery

Amid the row upon row of ancient artefacts crafted from bronze, stone and wood on display at the National Museum, a new exhibition provides a stark contrast to the country’s traditional art history. reBIRTH reVITALISE reGENERATION puts the work of some of the country’s best known contemporary artists on display in a collection that is at times distinctly modern in style, while often containing elements of traditional Khmer art.

Fifteen local artists contributed to the exhibition, which was initiated by Chhim Sothy, a painter and the director of fine arts and handicrafts at the Ministry of Culture. Carefully curated with the help of musicians Scott Bywater and Warren Daly, the exhibition is not only a celebration of the country’s modern art through the generations, but also a prototype for a national gallery for contemporary art.

According to Bywater, many Khmer artists have achieved international acclaim but remain relatively unknown within the Cambodian community. He partly ascribes this to the lack of a permanent public space for Khmer contemporary art. “If you want to find contemporary art, as a student or a visitor, you [have] to hunt out what is showing right now,” he says. Though there are several places run by expats in Phnom Penh such as Java Café, Meta House and The Plantation, where contemporary art pieces are regularly on display, these exhibitions usually run for about a month “and then it’s gone, into the hands of collectors or back into storehouses”.

“Instead of waiting around for the government to do something, let’s show [them] what we can do . . . what we have,” Bywater says.

Sothy says that the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts supports the exhibition, and Minister Phoeung Sakona will give opening remarks this evening. However, the ministry does not currently have any firm plans for a contemporary art gallery.

Another reason Bywater cites for contemporary art’s struggles gaining traction is the lack of awareness within the local community about what exactly it is. Artist Leang Seckon says that contemporary art is often overshadowed by traditional Khmer arts, which have been given significant institutional support and are showcased in the National Museum. He hopes that by displaying contemporary artwork with traditional elements at the National Museum, alongside ancient art, visitors will have a better understanding of modern techniques.

The exhibition features works by master artists who have taught at the Royal University of Fine Arts, as well as pieces by their former students who have now achieved artistic recognition of their own. The very idea of having their own work displayed alongside their mentors is a motivating factor for the younger generation of contemporary artists, some of whom have created new pieces within the past month in order to match the standards of their teachers.

“To have something like this which looks at the range of work that’s being done in contemporary art is really very exciting,” Bywater says.

reBIRTH reVITALISE reGENERATION opens today at 6pm at the National Museum of Cambodia and will run until May 6.

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