Siem Reap has become a magnetic attraction for local and foreign artists, drawn by its healthy art industry and an indefinable something ‘in the air’
Craftsmanship among the Khmer people is really amazing. They’ve got Angkor Wat to prove it.
At first glance, Siem Reap may not seem like a town that would spawn a thriving art scene. Until recently, it was a dusty provincial capital that just happened to be next to one of the world’s greatest archaeological wonders.
But today, Cambodian and foreign artists alike come to Siem Reap to exhibit their work.
Loven Ramos, a Filipino artist who came to Cambodia in 2005, says Siem Reap has the right factors to create a bustling art industry.
“There is a perfect mix of everything,” explains Ramos. The town attracts a cosmopolitan mix who appreciate not only the ancient temples, but the artistic work of contemporary Cambodia, he says.
But Ramos admits accessing the region’s energy can take time.
“When I first came here, I asked: ‘What the hell did I do to myself?’ This is probably the most boring, dustiest and smelly place.”
However, he stuck around, found a niche and began practising his art.
“That’s the thing about Cambodia. You have to scratch and get below skin-depth to really discover its true charm.”
Even though he is a foreigner, he says, his work is ultimately concerned with his surroundings.
“You cannot invoke the spirit of a place unless you have locals involved in it,” he says.
“Either if it’s artwork done by a foreigner or a local, it’s art inspired by Cambodia.”
While Siem Reap has many art galleries catering to the tourist trade, Phnom Penh retains the throne as king of Cambodia’s art scene.
Artist Sasha Constable, who first came to Cambodia in 2001, says the differences needed to be put into perspective.
“There are very few artists actually living in Siem Reap compared to Phnom Penh,” Constable says.
“The Siem Reap draw is due to the transient market coming through of all the tourists, so it makes sense to have a commercial gallery in Siem Reap rather than in Phnom Penh.”
Don Protasio, who curates the Art Lounge at Hotel de la Paix, says his job is to create a venue to promote and sell locally made art, whether produced by Khmers or foreigners.
“A lot of expats settled in town, and they brought a lot of positive energy that didn’t exist before,” he says.
As an artist, Protasio says he can’t help but be inspired in Siem Reap.
“In the ancient times, this place had that energy from the temples. It’s in the air, it’s in the genes of the people.”
Most Cambodian artists exhibiting in Siem Reap come from Phnom Penh, where the Royal University of Fine Arts is based, or Battambang, where artists are trained at the NGO-run Phare Ponleu Selpak art school.
“What we do here is present the artists, but we don’t have our own stable of artists, and we don’t formally connect with other galleries to exchange talent,” said Protasio.
Ramos says despite its booming art trade, Siem Reap lacks any formal artistic instruction and needs more art schools. “You need an institution to redirect the growth of art,” he said.
Meanwhile, contemporary Cambodian artists are dependent on the international market, as Khmers tend to buy traditional images of Angkor Wat or Apsara dancers.
Dana Langlois, who owns the Java Arts Cafe in Phnom Penh, says only a few images are identified as “traditional Cambodian paintings”.
“When you start getting into more contemporary work, or anything that strays from what’s already accepted, then only foreigners are buying them,” Langlois said.
Nonetheless, Ramos is optimistic about the future of Cambodian art.
“Most Cambodians I know are receptive to new ideas. They don’t necessarily embrace them, but they welcome them,” he said.
“The sense of craftsmanship among the Khmer people is really amazing. They’ve got Angkor Wat to prove it.”