French-Cambodian Borany Mam moved to Phnom Penh four years ago from Paris, where she was trained in art restoration. She immediately began working at the National Museum, restoring its trove of 19th- and 20th-century paintings. She sat down with Audrey Wilson this week to point out some of the capital’s artistic highlights
Storage room at the National Museum
When I arrived in Cambodia, I went to the National Museum and proposed a project to the director: to restore the oil paintings, the most beautiful collection of paintings on Cambodian canvases. I self-funded the project, and have worked there for three years now. There are around 20 paintings in the museum, mostly from donors – and they are all from the 19th and 20th centuries. We’ve nearly restored five so far. They are mostly religious paintings, but there are two portraits and two landscapes. Before I arrived, most of them had never been exhibited: they were too deteriorated. People don’t place the same value on paintings as they do on temples – but these masterpieces have been forgotten for too long. They are our patrimonie (heritage), and it’s time to give them some light.
Paintings at the Silver Pagoda
The mural paintings inside the Silver Pagoda, to me, are some of the finest Cambodian works ever painted. I think the paintings in the National Museum were influenced by the paintings at the pagoda. They were painted in the early 1900s by the famous Oknha Tep Nimit Mak and his students – they tell the Khmer version of the Ramayana, the Reamker. It’s the story of Prince Preah Ream and Princess Neang Seda. I could spend hours contemplating the epic tale: the design, the colours, the characters. Unfortunately, these paintings have deteriorated over time, and there’s a restoration campaign in progress. It’s essential to conserve – it’s one of the key works in the history of Khmer art, I think.
The preservation of old paintings is very important, but so are the modern paintings. I’m also interested in the contemporary arts here. I think another very important project is The Boat – originally designed as a hotel, and soon to be renovated into a contemporary art center with exhibition galleries and artists’ studios. I think these kinds of initiatives mark a real turning point in the local art scene – there are few places in Phnom Penh where artists can express their art freely. There are many painters in Cambodia, but they don’t always have the resources to do their work.
I met Dominique and Danielle Guéret last year at the French Institute and then in my studio at the museum. They carried out great research – about every Buddhist monastery in the country and their adornments – and presented it last year. Here in Phnom Penh, they highlighted Wat Ounalom. It’s in the centre of the city, and not many of the pagodas there are so well-preserved. It’s in incredible condition, the paintings are preserved very well. But Dominique and Danielle have sounded the alarm about the conservation of the architectural and pictorial heritage that has been deteriorating here. I think the preservation of Khmer painting is a work of collective memory – we need to be aware of the urgency of the situation. Dominique and Danielle are some of the best representatives to do so.
Phousséra ‘Séra’ Ing
If I had to pick only one contemporary Cambodian artist that I am particularly fond of, it would be Séra. He’s a French-Cambodian painter and a friend. I met him here in Phnom Penh. He was born in Cambodia, but left in 1975 with his mother and sister. The execution of his father by the Khmer Rouge had a huge impact on his life and art. He is famous for his bande dessinée (comics), but also for his sculptures and paintings. He’s currently working on a major memorial project for the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. And he made an exhibition last year [at the National Institute of Education] of his paintings; they’re often very large and evoke an abstract attachment to his roots. His lines, sometime violent gestures and the colours he uses translate his personal history. He’s a full artist. Last year, for my 30th birthday, I bought myself one of his works – small, but I’m proud of it.