Bringing Khmer-influenced art full circle

Scenes from Phnom Penh by Shui Tit Sing. Photo supplied
Scenes from Phnom Penh by Shui Tit Sing. Photo supplied

Bringing Khmer-influenced art full circle

Throughout the 1960s, a group of Chinese émigré artists travelled through Southeast Asia on a modern-day backpacker’s route: to Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia – including Angkor Wat.

The self-organised Ten Men Art Group, as they were called (there were actually 10 men and two women), came from Singapore and were motivated by the notion of shaping a regional style. One in particular, Shui Tit Sing, was taken with the Kingdom, incorporating wood carving based on bas relief panels into his modern art, and recording photos and meticulous diary entries through his time in Cambodia.

“You can see the influence of the bas relief panels on the way he would compositionally arrange a narrative through his work,” independent curator Vera Mey explained. And the influence continued at home: “From Singapore, he depicted more modern scenes – but still through carving – and you can see the influence of Angkor in the way he arranges his images.”

Next week, through the efforts of Singapore-based artist and archivist Koh Nguang How, Shui’s work will be exhibited in Cambodia for what may be the first time – in archive form. The exhibition, co-curated by Mey and Melanie Mermod, will appear at Sa Sa Bassac gallery, and pieces of the Shui archives will appear in a larger show at Betonsalon in Paris in September.

In Singapore, Koh is well-known for his compulsive collecting. Since 2005, his Singapore Art Archive Project (SAAP) has amassed photographs, graphic posters, recordings and catalogues relating to art throughout Southeast Asia – some of which date to the early 1930s. He’s frequently exhibited parts of SAAP in the region.

Koh has worked closely with Shui’s family and has collated a series of black-and-white photographs and diary entries – translated from the Chinese – that he plans to show in Phnom Penh, where he will also take on a monthlong residency.

On a recent research trip, Koh retraced and reproduced many of Shui’s photographs; he has also incorporated physical objects – baskets, charcoal bundles, kramas – that appear throughout Shui’s archive and appear in markets today.

Shui Tit Sing at Angkor Wat in 1963. Photo supplied
Shui Tit Sing at Angkor Wat in 1963. Photo supplied

Shui’s 1963 trip to Cambodia parallelled an interesting juncture in Cambodian art history – and one which lost many of its original pieces to civil war, according to Sa Sa Bassac artistic director Erin Gleeson.

During the Sangkum era, Khmer art fell broadly into two factions: the commercialised, popular strand, supported by the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s patronage; and art that was more closely propagandistic, and associated with the communist party.

Shui Tit Sing and the Ten Men Art Group may have encountered both philosophies at the Royal University of the Fine Arts, she said. But they depicted different kinds of scenes: romanticised, uncritical. Sing’s journals, Gleeson says, show a little more depth. “There was certainly an element of exoticism. But there was also a conceptual discourse around the depiction of time in narrative.”

They certainly weren’t the only foreign artists in the Kingdom – Gleeson says she’s encountered mentions of artistic delegations in the pages of Sihanouk’s journals – but they were quite independent, and perhaps the first to try to define a Southeast Asian “regionalism” through their travels, even on a small scale.

The effort has interesting echoes in the contemporary Southeast Asian scene, which now-wealthy Singapore often influences – through awards, residencies and funding.

The SAAP collection – presented in the Cambodian context – raises questions about what “Southeast Asian” art might be. “It makes me think about regional formation, and how each generation needs to think for themselves what that means,” Gleeson said.

The Singapore Art Archive Project exhibition opens next Saturday, July 30, at 6pm at Sa Sa Bassac, #18E Sothearos Boulevard. The exhibition runs through October 1, and will be accompanied by public programs.

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