Battambang native Reaksmey Yean is an art professional, an art history graduate of London’s SOAS, and a recent transplant to Phnom Penh, where he is an assistant curator at Java Arts. He’s also working on his own project: figuring out a way to archive Cambodia’s modern and contemporary works for generations to come. Audrey Wilson spoke to him this week about the places in the city that inspire him
I know that when it comes to a public conversation, it’s difficult to get some artists to talk. So I like to go to artists’ studios, to visit them, eat with them, talk with them – and they feel free to speak with me [there]. Since I’ve been back in Phnom Penh, I’ve only visited Leang Seckon’s studio, and seen his new work. His recent work is more on painting, with collage and embroidery. It reflects on Cambodia’s past – the atrocities of war and its aftermath. I plan on visiting more artists’ studios soon.
I have been to the Bophana Center very often. They don’t have so much focus on visual art in particular – they have videos of both classical and contemporary dance, but not much of anything about art. It’s very audiovisual – there are not a lot of physical documents. What I encountered with Bophana is more about Cambodia’s tragic past. My vision of Bophana and my interaction with it is very focused on the Khmer Rouge or the things that happened before, in the 1960s. That’s how I visualise it. It’s not necessarily contemporary. I want to see now if they’re interested in contemporary art collections, and especially digital archiving.
Now that I’m back in Phnom Penh, I’m interested in the National Archives, which is right behind the National Library. I’m interested in doing documentation and archival of contemporary art. That’s my job now. [The National Archives] is a separate institution from the library – it is an archive of the history of Cambodia, under the management of the Council of Ministers. There are a lot of collections from the period of French colonialism, and there are a lot of photos from the 1960s and 1970s. I don’t know if there is art there yet, but I think there might be something. I’ve not yet fully explored the collections. I need to see what they decided to save – and what this sort of institution lacks.
Contemporary Arts Spaces
In the past, there was Romeet – now you have just Sa Sa Bassac and Java’s arts space. I think these three institutions have been the best voice for contemporary art, although that’s not to marginalise other institutions. I spend most of my time here [at Java], but Sa Sa Bassac has a small library, a small collection of books on contemporary art. It’s difficult to find those books – I do a lot of research online. There’s no such thing in Khmer as ‘contemporary’ art. We use the word thmey [new]. The now in Cambodian art does not have to be what is Western. I think these spaces help artists develop this idea of contemporary art. There is a Western presence in Cambodia, but [the art] is not Western, it is Cambodian.
Walks near the National Museum
There is nowhere in Phnom Penh that completely reminds me of Battambang. But I like architecture – pagodas, or French colonial buildings, like the ones along the riverbank in my hometown. In Phnom Penh, there are similar places. There are a lot of French colonial buildings on Norodom, and pagodas close to the Royal Palace. When I’m free, I like to walk: past the Sisowath School, or down by the National Museum. Sometimes then I feel very close to home. My favourite building is the one opposite the National Museum [on Street 178]. When I imagine this building, it always reminds me of the municipality building in Battambang. It’s like walking back into the past. I ask who would live in that building in the past, why it was constructed that way.