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Inspired by UNTAC, five artists reflect on transition

Mixed media by Chan Vitharin.
Mixed media by Chan Vitharin. Eli Meixler

Inspired by UNTAC, five artists reflect on transition

The UN-backed 1993 elections, which gave Cambodians a largely free and fair vote for the first time but still didn’t stop the losing Prime Minister Hun Sen from holding on to power, remain a source of academic debate.

But for five university art professors, the period has been an unlikely source of creative inspiration.

Transition, which opened last night at Meta House, showcases the works of five local art professors who have chosen to celebrate the period between 1992 and 1993, during which the UN effectively ruled Cambodia as it transitioned from a single-party state to a multiparty democracy.

Although the ruling Cambodian People’s Party refused to relinquish full power to the opposing Funcinpec party, which won the election, Transition’s participants said that the election was nonetheless a momentous event worth celebrating.

“Why come up with something [negative] about the history, but something that is happy about history?” said Tith Veasna, the 30-year-old Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) professor who organised the exhibition.

The artists, who are all lecturers at RUFA, come from different generations and bring different memories to the exhibition.

Veasna own contribution, titled In Between, is the only piece that is not a painting. Hundreds of small squares of blue cloth are stitched together with pins, and a copper net is stitched to the back.

The blue represents the UN peacekeepers’ blue helmets, while the pins represent the Cambodian people. The copper net, which is partially covered by the cloth, represents the closed society that preceded the arrival of the UN.

“It was like a prison you could not get out,” she said.

Following the fall of the Pol Pot regime in 1979, the country was occupied by the Vietnamese army for 10 years. During this period, said Veasna, her mother could not find work as the economy was at a standstill.

“She applied for many jobs, but no one accepted her even to clean,” said Veasna.

But the arrival of the UN in 1991 rejuvenated the job market, said Veasna, and her mother became an officer in the UNTAC civil police force.

The UN’s injection of the US dollar into the economy, which was the first time regular Cambodians had access to foreign hard currency since before 1975, also helped propel development.

Most of the paintings in the exhibition are abstract, said Veasna.

The election’s controversial aftermath, which led to Prime Minister Hun Sen retaining power despite losing to the opposition Funcinpec, is not referenced.

Suos Sodavy, 60, who was studying art in Hungary on a scholarship during the election, decided to use lively patterns and natural colours to draw a metaphor between movements in nature and political evolution.

The UNTAC period, he said, paved the way for artistic venues such as Meta House to exist by creating a more open society.

“It was good for Cambodia, because we can have [exhibitions] like this,” he said.

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