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Bringing Cambodian art and culture to the youth

Lomorpich Rithy: young Cambodians need to learn more about their culture – both ancient and modern.
Lomorpich Rithy: young Cambodians need to learn more about their culture – both ancient and modern. Athena Zelandonii

Bringing Cambodian art and culture to the youth

Fewer young people are studying fine arts, instead drawn to courses that promise better earnings. The result, say some – a deficit of cultural knowledge.

If two youths are walking down the street, one with a guitar and one with a traditional instrument, people will look at the one with the traditional instrument and ask, ‘What are you doing?’”

Young people view Cambodian art as something for old people, as “old fashioned”, says 24-year-old Lomorpich Rithy at KE Café in Phnom Penh this week, where she has organised a month-long showcase for young artists.

In 2011, she took part in an exchange program to Japan in which participants were asked to make presentations on the arts and culture of their respective countries. It made her realise how little she knew compared to others who “at least knew a few songs and dances” from their homelands.

It motivated her to create the now three-year-old Bonn Phum (Village Arts Festival) and to found the Plerng Kob (Campfire) community for young artists.

Lomorpich fears that if young people do not embrace traditional arts and advance them, that culture will be lost. This issue, which is the focus of a talk she will give at the Nowhere Art Gallery on Tuesday, “comes from the way we are learning”.

Morm Picheret, who will perform at Young Artists@K.E.
Morm Picheret, who will perform at Young [email protected] Athena Zelandonii

“There’s very little in terms of arts and culture in the national education system – compared to Thailand, where they have club activities; we only have books to read . . . Also, [in the] media, you turn on the TV and there are no culture or art shows; just pop music that copies songs, and there is less educational programming.”

Social and financial pressures also conspire to push students away from studying the arts.

Samphors “Errandly” Tes, 22, says her family pressured her to forgo arts in favour of banking and finance, her current major at Zaman University. Nonetheless, she co-founded a graphic design company in which she has put both of her skill sets to use.

“I love art – that’s why I’m trying to find a way to keep doing something I like,” she says.

Teng Pisey, a Grade 11 traditional dance student at the public Secondary School of Fine Arts, says when she began her course in Grade 4 there were more than 30 students in her program.

“Now, there are only three people in my class. I love arts and I will continue my studies at RUFA [the Royal University of Fine Arts] majoring in traditional dance,” she says, adding that she nonetheless intends to pursue law studies as well to secure a stable job.

“Some of my friends said to me that their parents pressure them to quit school because they think that being an artist makes it difficult to find a job,” Pisey says.

Seng Kakada, a Year 12 sculpture student, says his class size dropped from 64 to 20 students in his time at the school.

“The art market is small,” he says, adding that his former classmates’ parents “do not value art”.

All of the students Post Weekend spoke to say their teachers have other careers to supplement their income.

According to data provided by the school, the total number of enrolled students dropped nearly 12 per cent, from 1,033 to 912, in the past year.

Bun Heang, the vice principal of the Secondary School of Fine Arts, says enrollment has been declining “from year to year”.

“The reason that the rate is going down is the question of future careers,” he says, adding that the Lakhorn and circus faculties have suffered the most.

Heang says the school has tried to put recordings of student performances on television, but simply cannot afford to do so.

And, he says, the number of students going on to study at RUFA is also decreasing, and that families with means opt to enroll their children in alternate fields of study.

Teng Pisey, who is studying traditional dance.
Teng Pisey, who is studying traditional dance. Athena Zelandonii

Renowned Cambodian artist Em Riem, a RUFA graduate who also teaches art at a private university in Phnom Penh, believes that the style of teaching is also a contributory factor in dissuading students from furthering their arts education and developing a depth of knowledge in the traditional arts.

“It’s extremely strict. There needs to be a dialogue between the teacher and the student for the artist to develop,” he says, adding that success requires “work, work, work, like Rihanna said”.

Chy Rotha, the head of academic affairs at RUFA, says contemporary art programs at the university do have a higher degree of flexibility, but notes that rigorous instruction is key when it comes to learning the traditional arts.

“For traditional dance, there are norms that students must follow. Students cannot dance based on what they think. For architecture, the teacher encourages students to initiate their thinking and encourages creativity . . . so it depends on what major they are taking,” he says.

However, for Lomorpich, this split approach is problematic, as the old needs to be learned before creating the new.

“Before there is a Cambodian contemporary dance, you need to know the traditional kind,” she says.

“The arts need support from the government, or some encouragement at least through showcasing at festivals,” she adds.

Superficially recognising the rich and storied culture of Angkor and Cambodia, she says, is not enough.

“Have we built anything better? Have we danced any better?”

Lomorpich Rithy will be speaking at Nowhere, #3Eo Street 312 on August 9 at 7pm. $3 entry goes towards the 5k Riel Campaign to preserve Cambodian Shadow Puppet-making. Young Artists @ K.E. will feature showcases of photography, painting, digital arts and fashion every weekend through the first week of September at K.E. Café and Lounge, #739 Street 128.

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