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Cambodian arts: a scene in development or decline?

Festival-goers at the Bonn Phum Art Festival in 2015.
Festival-goers at the Bonn Phum Art Festival in 2015. Hong Menea

Cambodian arts: a scene in development or decline?

Covering arts and culture in Cambodia – as the paper has done throughout its history, and over the last three years through Post Weekend – is a bittersweet affair. On the one hand, reporters get to delve into the country’s profound cultural traditions and to explore art forms that have existed for centuries. In doing so, they meet people who are devoting their lives to perfecting, preserving and adapting these crafts. On the other hand, there is a certain demoralising narrative that often pulses through these stories – of a culture in decline because of a lack of financial support and interest from the general public.

While there is no doubt that many artists and art forms are in crisis because of neglect, there are glimmers of hope emerging. This is especially true via young artists who are incorporating elements of traditional Khmer art with a contemporary style attracting youth audiences. Take, for example, the powerhouse artists involved in the Bonn Phum Art Festival – a recreation of a traditional Khmer New Year village celebration that has been massively popular since it began three years – and the musical endeavour IAmOriginal.

The latter is a non-profit promoting Cambodian musicians making “original” music (i.e. not covers). One of the groups it supports, SmallworldSmallband, now has more than 70,000 followers on Facebook and, as shown by their recent album release show, a fan base captivated by their every move. The group plays contemporary rock and pop, including some ballads in line with typical contemporary Khmer pop music, but it also injects uniquely Cambodian elements. The concert included a traditional flute (kloy in Khmer), hammer dulcimer (khim) and even an interlude involving performers of Lakhon Sbek Thom – or the art of large shadow puppetry – snaking their way through the packed house. This use of traditional art seems to be resonating elsewhere – even in a restaurant recently featured by Post Weekend in which owner Prom Putvisal shows off his love for Lakhon Khol, the traditional masked dance dating back to Angkorian times. At his restaurant, the country’s traditions serve as the backdrop to a laid-back neighbourhood seafood joint. Such Khmer artistic flourishes are seen elsewhere, in an increasingly local street art scene and in hip new cafes throughout the city.

There is also plenty of room and support for art with fewer nods to the past, especially in the local film industry. This year’s action comedy, Jailbreak, may be a sign of things to come for Cambodian movies – like bigger budgets, non-horror plots and better production values. It featured local artists of all types – such as martial arts fighters, comedians, models and musicians. It is still making the rounds internationally, making it the country’s farthest reaching local film.

While the situation looks bleaker for contemporary arts, there are also positive signs for this corner of the art world. A recent exhibition covered by Post Weekend at the National Museum was a huge step forward in that it brought together new and more established contemporary artists with the hope of moving towards the establishment of a permanent national collection. Contemporary art is a tougher sell to a young audience but there is no shortage of talent.

One of the most remarkable aspects of covering arts in the country is the exposure to “hobbyists” who use their spare time and incomes to pursue their artistic passions. This is true, for example, of Long Borarith, a bank employee who has begun making electric chapeys – a modernised version of the two-stringed guitar – in his free time; Kompheak Phoeung, a Khmer Rouge tribunal interpreter who is also helping commission the making of a full set of Sbek Thom puppets on the roof of his home to perform the Reamker, Cambodia’s interpretation of the Hindu epic Ramayana; and Channlin Til, who since 2009 has been virtually single-handedly trying to revive traditional archery. While the narrative of cultural destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge is accurate, the roots of Khmer culture remain and are branching off into new territory in the hands of a young generation.

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