Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Bringing Khmer-influenced art full circle



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.

MOST VIEWED

  • Hong Kong firm done buying Coke Cambodia

    Swire Coca-Cola Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Swire Pacific Ltd, on November 25 announced that it had completed the acquisition of The Coca-Cola Co’s bottling business in Cambodia, as part of its ambitions to expand into the Southeast Asian market. Swire Coca-Cola affirmed

  • Cambodia's Bokator now officially in World Heritage List

    UNESCO has officially inscribed Cambodia’s “Kun Lbokator”, commonly known as Bokator, on the World Heritage List, according to Minister of Culture and Fine Arts Phoeurng Sackona in her brief report to Prime Minister Hun Sen on the night of November 29. Her report, which was

  • NagaWorld union leader arrested at airport after Australia trip

    Chhim Sithar, head of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld integrated casino resort, was arrested on November 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia. Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge

  • Sub-Decree approves $30M for mine clearance

    The Cambodian government established the ‘Mine-Free Cambodia 2025 Foundation’, and released an initial budget of $30 million. Based on the progress of the foundation in 2023, 2024 and 2025, more funds will be added from the national budget and other sources. In a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen

  • Two senior GDP officials defect to CPP

    Two senior officials of the Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) have asked to join the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), after apparently failing to forge a political alliance in the run-up to the 2023 general election. Yang Saing Koma, chairman of the GDP board, and Lek Sothear,

  • Angkor Beer, 30 Years of Prestige and Still Counting

    Let’s celebrate 30 years of prestige with Angkor Beer. In this 2022, Angkor Beer is 30 years old and has been staying with Cambodian hearts in all circumstances. Head of core beer portfolio, EmYuthousaid, “We have been with Cambodians for three decades now. We, ANGKOR Beer, pride