Little about the interior of Cambodia’s National Museum has changed over the decades: its halls are lined with Buddhas, Vishnus and artefacts in original glass cases. But for the next two months, in a small space to the left of its ornate wooden doors, the government museum will host its first exhibition of contemporary Cambodian art.
The show, Histories of the Future, will feature works by an impressive list of 18 artists – many who have gone global – including a sculpture from Pich Sopheap, a new piece by Leang Seckon and a collaborative work by four artists who worked together on the Jong Jam exhibition in Australia.
Each of the pieces in Histories of the Future has been supported in some way by the Australian government, which has over the past two decades invested cultural resources in contemporary Southeast Asian art, and hosted many of the exhibition’s artists in its own museums. (The project’s funding was secured by Arjun Bisen of the Australian Embassy.)
While the museum has shown some contemporary work in the past, according to Kong Vireak, the museum’s director, this exhibition is the first to feature only Cambodian artists. And he was quite open to the idea.
“Mr Vireak saw the The Buddhist Bug [by Anida Yoeu Ali], and immediately said, ‘Oh! I know that work, I love that work’,” said Dana Langlois, who curated the exhibition.
For artists like Svay Sareth – who in January won the top prize at Singapore’s Prudential Eye Awards and has a show at London’s prestigious Saatchi Gallery slated for September – this attitude, and the decision to hold an exhibition in the National Museum, marks a shift for public access to the arts in the Kingdom.
“It’s a very new space for freedom of expression – and they usually have the old thinking,” Sareth said in an interview this week. “I could not have imagined this. It’s like a new take on art history in Cambodia.
“I have often said to many officials at the Ministry of Culture, ‘Why are you always talking about the stones?’” he added with a laugh.
Sareth’s piece, Stake or Skewer, is one of a series of four previously exhibited works drawing on the black rubber sandals traditionally worn by the Khmer Rouge as a metaphor. Here, the artist hangs 17 of them from a street hawker’s staff – to represent the number of years he spent in refugee camps.
Some of the works don’t even entirely abandon their stone neighbours.
Leang Seckon’s new piece, Kneeling and Watching the Festivities, takes its cue from a set of statues looted from the Kingdom and recently returned. Like much of his work, it is a collage: the figures are carved as traditional leather puppets and sewn into the painting’s canvas.
In Cascades, Amy Lee Sanford, who was born in Cambodia but moved to the States to live with an adoptive family as a child, has worked with a different sort of artefact: 250 letters from her biological father to her mother that she discovered as a teenager.
Sanford, who lived in Phnom Penh for five years as an adult, said those years helped her reconnect with the country she was forced to leave. “My work reflects that experience of trauma and recovery,” Sanford said via email this week.
Langlois has placed Sanford’s work – a video in which she pieces one of the letters, cut into squares, back together – at the exhibition’s entrance. “There’s an echo with the whole archaeological process,” she explained. “It becomes a transition from the museum’s permanent display.”
For some artists, like Sanford, hopes are high that the transition is not an aberration. “I’m thrilled,” she said. “But I am [also] interested to see the National Museum pursue a permanent collection [of contemporary art].”
The exhibition Histories of the Future opens to the public on Friday, July 1, and will run through August 31 at the National Museum of Cambodia on Street 13.