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In new show, master student becomes teacher

Kong Vollak’s Through the War (2015) and Human Build (2015) are on show at The Plantation next week. Photo supplied
Kong Vollak’s Through the War (2015) and Human Build (2015) are on show at The Plantation next week. Photo supplied

In new show, master student becomes teacher

Multidisciplinary artist Kong Vollak has made a career out of printmaking, carving his sharp designs into stone, copper and aluminium. Next week, though, he will serve as curator of his own group exhibition, which includes work by some of his students.

Indeed, the soft-spoken Vollak seems more interested in showcasing the students’ pieces than his own.

Cutting Edges features eight works by Vollak, as well as 13 by teachers and students of the Char studio at the Royal University of the Fine Arts, where he once studied and has served as an occasional mentor over the past year. But he’s not necessarily an instructor.

Kong Vollak’s Through the War (2015) and Human Build (2015) are on show at The Plantation next week. Photo supplied

“[The students] already know about technical things,” he says. “So sometimes they ask me questions like, ‘Bong, how [do I] become an artist?’” But asked if he thinks he’s inspired them, Vollak – in characteristically humble fashion – denies it.

The Char studio, which was founded by a pair of Mexican artists in 2011, brought the first post-war etching press to Cambodia – and with it, new options for arts students.

Vollak graduated from RUFA in 2006 but returned to study printmaking under Fernando Aceves Humana, an expert in lithography who is also exhibiting next week.

Vollak selected the works from teachers and students to appear in Cutting Edges; the students on exhibition are the ones Vollak says envision their career – or at least their next big project – in printmaking.

“They really know technique,” he says. “And they translate that to art.” Printmaking can appear two-dimensional, or flat, but the students’ works leap off the page. Many are human figures, drawn from everyday life in Phnom Penh.

Last year, Vollak became something of a student again when he travelled to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a residency. It was his first time in Mexico, and he found himself able to work more easily in the city’s milder climate.

“In Mexico, they can print in every month,” he says. In Cambodia, sometimes the clay or stone used in the lithographic process is simply too hot, which ruins the print.

Artist Kong Vollak.
Artist Kong Vollak. Audrey Wilson

Vollak’s work most often focuses on urban life and architecture – skyscrapers, wires and streets, tangled up and darkly rendered.

His work in Cutting Edges doesn’t veer too far off that track, except for one piece, Through the War, which he produced in Oaxaca but based on his research with Cambodian diaspora communities in Brisbane, Australia.

Though teachers such as Humana Aceves might cite Vollak as a master graduate, he doesn’t need to look too far for contemporaries. He points to Neak Sophal, a female artist whose print Rice Pot (2012) is featured among the works displayed.

What, then, is the next step for expanding the field?

“It would be helpful for a bigger press machine,” Vollak says. “We are searching for someone in Phnom Penh who can make it.”

Cutting Edges opens at The Plantation, #28 Street 184, at 6pm on Wednesday. The exhibition runs through October 9.

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