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A pop art prelude to a new musical

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One of Poulson’s prints. Eliah Lillis

A pop art prelude to a new musical

Julien Poulson’s new exhibition, Yesterday, Once More is an explosion of colour and style infused with 1960s and ’70s iconography, and hopefully the first step towards a musical with the same theme.

Set against a stark blue and green grid-patterned wall, a young woman in bold polka-dots sits with an acoustic guitar nestled in her lap. Dramatically emblazoned in the foreground is “Mselmenh mdong tiet”, or Yesterday, Once More in primary red and yellow.

This colourful illustration of Khmer diva Pov Vannary is just one of 24 paintings created by Julian Poulson, lead guitarist and founder of the Cambodian Space Project, in a pop art series paying tribute to Cambodian and Western rock icons popular in the turbulent but culturally rich 1960s and ’70s in Cambodia. The artwork will be displayed at an exhibition called Yesterday, Once More, opening at Chinese House next Thursday.

The pieces were created as part of The Paint Project at the Kampot Arts and Music Association (KAMA), which Poulson manages. The endeavour began as a screen printing project, in which a series of limited edition Cambodian Space Project posters were designed in collaboration with Cambodian print makers, and has now evolved into an ongoing art series focused on creating pop art with a distinctive Southeast Asian flavour.

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Julien Poulson with a print depicting Pov Vannary. Eliah Lillis

Composed of paint and collage and a combination of acrylic and enamel on paper and board, the works are all up for auction. Four of the pieces have already sold for between $400-$700 each. The proceeds will go to KAMA to fund the production of a musical of the same name.

The musical is based on Pov Vannary, one of the many artists who disappeared during the Khmer Rouge regime. Educated in the United States, her musical style was the epitome of the clash between Cambodian pop culture and Western rock.

“Pov Vannary’s big hits of the day were songs by Karen Carpenter, who was described as the voice of sorrow. [Vannary’s] Khmer interpretations were hauntingly beautiful,” Poulson says. The musical, and by extension the exhibition, takes its name from Pov Vannary’s popular cover of The Carpenter’s Yesterday, Once More.

Set in Cambodia, the story takes place at three different points in time 1970, 1975 and 1993. It explores the fictitious meeting of three characters – Vannary, an Australian who works as a communications specialist at the Australian Embassy, and his Khmer driver, who narrates the play’s story onstage.

The musical also looks at the birth, death and revival of Cambodian rock ’n’ roll, with the musical accompaniment of Khmer interpretations of The Carpenters and Credence Clearwater Revival as performed by the Cambodian Space Project.

“All we have of these recordings are [repeatedly] copied off cassettes, so they sound very, very fragile and flimsy,” Poulson says.

Most of the plans for the musical are still early in the development stage, though Poulson hopes to collaborate with Sophiline Cheam Shapiro from Khmer Arts to choreograph the dance, which is to be a fusion of traditional and contemporary styles.

While there is more dialogue and narrative compared to the Space Project’s previous two travelling musicals, Poulson says that Yesterday, Once More is an opportunity to showcase the resurrection of ’60s and ’70s culture, specifically referring to the imagery, music and fashion.

“It’s looking into the past, looking at the future, and staging something for now, the present,” he says.

The Yesterday, Once More exhibition opens next Thursday at 6:30pm at Chinese House. More details about the exhibition, musical and the list of artworks for sale are available on Facebook.

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