‘Most of the knowledge we have about the arts here is very anecdotal’

Historic documents, ranging from newspaper clippings to artist biographies, will be available to researchers at the Java Cafe and Gallery.
Historic documents, ranging from newspaper clippings to artist biographies, will be available to researchers at the Java Cafe and Gallery. PHOTOGRAPHS SUPPLIED BY JAVA CAFE AND GALLERY

‘Most of the knowledge we have about the arts here is very anecdotal’

American Dana Langlois, founder and owner of Java Cafe and Gallery, has a passion for art. After 14 years of serving Cambodia’s artistic community, the gallery has launched a public archive

It’s a history of contemporary art in Cambodia – and it’s tucked away in a coffee shop.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Last week, Java Cafe and Gallery launched its public archive after 14 years of serving Cambodia’s art community.

Documents ranging from newspaper clippings to artist biographies will be available to researchers hoping to better understand the Kingdom’s contemporary arts scene.

Dana Langlois, founder and owner of Java, said that the archive was born out of a desire to create a record of Cambodia’s recent art history. “Most of the knowledge we have about the arts here is very anecdotal,” said the American-born owner of the cafe and gallery.

“There’s very little information out there and what has happened in the last couple decades.”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Java, one of Cambodia’s oldest art spaces, has exhibited about 100 artists since it opened in 2000. About 70 per cent of the cafe’s art-related documents, which include fliers, programme events and other written mementos, have been stored away for posterity. “It’s a matter of bringing together materials that survived several computer crashes,” said Langlois with a laugh.

When Java first opened, Cambodian art was mostly ignored outside the country. The only gallery spaces in Phnom Penh were the Reyum Institute, which has since closed, and the French Cultural Centre. But when Langlois arrived here in 1998 to volunteer for an NGO, she decided to introduce something new to the art scene.

The concept behind the cafe and gallery, explained Langlois, was to create a “cultural enterprise” that could turn a profit from food and drink sales in order to support Java’s artistic ventures.

“I have to admit it was probably very naive at the time – it was more of this young kind of fantasy around the idea,” she said.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

Langlois still has the flier for Java’s first exhibition from November 2000 which was titled A World Beneath and showcased textile art on canvas by Thai artist Kangkat Mookda. The flier was very crude, Langlois admitted, adding that it was comprised of a photograph glued to paper and laminated. But the idea for a cafe art space paid off, and Java became popular with tourists and expats because it was one of the only outlets of its kind in Phnom Penh at the time.

Putting a business and non-profit under the same roof proved to be economically efficient. “A normal gallery will have to staff several people to produce events, whereas here it is all in the cafe system,” said Langlois.

As the years have rolled by, the art scene has changed significantly with increased economic opportunities. Connections with countries have also helped the Kingdom’s artists explore new ideas. But a coherent historical narrative of Cambodia’s contemporary art history has yet to be written.

“Having this discussion with my other colleagues in the arts, we realised it was very critical to develop a historical narrative,” said Langlois. “It’s quite daunting in many ways, and we recognised our own biases.”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post

With the opening of Java’s archive, which is available to anyone without appointment, she hopes other galleries will follow suit. But she is still unsure what researchers will discover about the country’s contemporary art history.

“I really think we need more distance, so in the future, 10 to 20 years from now, hopefully that clarity will emerge,” said Langlois.

The Java Cafe and Gallery archive is open during regular business hours from 7am-10pm at #56 Sihanouk Boulevard.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Content image - Phnom Penh Post

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