Cambodian artists receive a gallery showing on the sidelines of the Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair, but the local arts scene remains woefully underexposed
People mill around a sculpture by artist Phe Sophorn at the opening of the Strategies from Within exhibition at the Ke Center for Contemporary Art in Shanghai last week.
IN the inaugural year of the Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair last year, fair director Lorenzo Rudolf noticed that Southeast Asia was underrepresented.
So for this year's show last week, he invited a Cambodian artist, sculptor Sopheap Pich, to participate in the exhibition's Best of Discovery show.
Working in rattan and bamboo, Sopheap Pich said his experience at the fair made him eager to participate in more exhibitions internationally.
"People were surprised to see the sign 'Cambodia' on the Best of Discovery floor," added American curator and writer Erin Gleeson, who has lived in Cambodia for six years.
"Because it's a nascent scene there is a natural void of information about current artistic practice in Cambodia. This can be good for emerging artists; it's always nice to surprise an audience."
Gleeson said that surprise was echoed in the sentiment of audiences at "Strategies from Within", an exhibition of contemporary art from Cambodia and Vietnam at Ke Centre for Contemporary Art in Shanghai that ran parallel to the commercial art fair.
Representing Cambodia were photographs by Vandy Rattana, collage by Leang Seckon and Chan Dany, sculpture by Phe Sophorn and Sopheap Pich, film by Rithy Panh, and a documentary on Sophiline Shapiro's choreography.
Gleeson said, "At Ke, a Beijing-based curator said to me, 'This show is refreshing because it feels Asian.' As strange as it sounded it is a very relevant sense. So much of the work people are used to seeing coming out of Asia has very strong Western references, or more recently references to China or India. Cambodian artists have very few references outside of their direct experience of life and available materials."
Sopheap Pich agreed. "The Cambodian art scene is not that sophisticated. We're not very trendy. We do more back-to-Earth sort of stuff."
The art scene needed many more active artists and galleries to begin to grow, he added.
Gleeson thought that there might be as few as a dozen artists working as full-time artists in Cambodia without needing to subsidise their earnings with other work. Graduates from the Kingdom's private art schools - Phar Selapak in Battambang and Reyum Art School in Phnom Penh - made up the bulk of emerging artists.
We're not very trendy. we do more back-to-earth sort of stuff.
"A country of 14 million should be able to support fifty artists but it doesn't," said Gleeson. "Funding is scarce, as are collectors.
"Some of the artists are making their art in tiny, hot little rooms, with six family members crowded around thinking that they are wasting their time. Many of these young artists have never made a full body of work in part because they are invited to participate in thematic exhibitions, so they repeatedly create within others' ideas, like 'genocide', ‘Aids' or ‘Asean'. Many have not dedicated themselves to finding what it is that defines their ideas and practices."
In July, to support the creation of more mature work, Gleeson opened BASSAC, an artist-in-residence program for emerging Cambodian artists. In residence is Reyum graduate Chan Dany, who is creating an exhibition for a gallery in Hong Kong for November.