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New Generation Redefines Cambodian Art

Vann Nath, one of just seven survivors of the Khmer Rouge's S-21 prison in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, explains a painting depicting torture at his exhibition in Phnom Penh, (File Photo).

After almost 14-years of peace, Cambodia has moved from a country engulfed by war to one of the region’s top tourist destination. Conflict has also given way to a fledgling manufacturing industry and a evolving culture reflected in an emerging Cambodian art scene.

Traditional art

Cambodian art was once known for its rigid, two-dimensional copies of Angora Wat and pleasant countryside scenes that pre-dated the country’s 30-year war. Then came depictions of the sheer terror under the Khmer Rouge, which decimated traditional culture and banned most visual art, except for purely political purposes.

In the immediate years after the war the country’s art scene was almost non-existent. Now, artists strive to reflect a rapidly normalizing society.

Nico Mesterharm, the director of the Meta House Art Gallery in Phnom Penh, arrived here from his native Germany when Cambodian art was still defined by commercial painters who mainly depicted traditional motifs.

Emerging trends

Now, he says local artists are fusing local traditions with the modern and borrowing ideas from abroad.

“They see also that there is a thriving art scene in neighboring countries Thailand and Vietnam," said Mesterharm. "So they learn from other countries, from the achievement which have taken place in other countries.”

He says the country’s art scene started to change in 2005, when about 25 Cambodia contemporary artists started a project called Visual Arts Open.

This sparked the move towards contemporary arts and away from painting copies of landscapes or portraits to emphasize interpretation.

Chhim Sothy is among these new artists. His paintings fetch up to $3,000 each and have been exhibited across Asia, in Europe and the United States.

He says the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge dominated his early work while religion and, in particular, Buddhism were also major influences. But he now looks at other sources of inspiration.

“For my favorite painting, I like more contemporary art or abstract art like Picasso, William Kooning, Gauguin or van Gough, I like this style," he said. "Now I change a lot, work about the family, about the people around me, sometimes abstract, sometimes thinking about real life. I’m very happy because I develop a lot.”

Modern art

Chhim Sothy uses oil on canvas, many shades of green, blues and a splash of red in his nudes which relate more to urban family life than the erotic. Mother and child are constant themes in his work which also mixes mythical characters of Hindu poems with man as the explorer of life.

It is a long way from the Institute of Culture and Fine Arts where most of the country’s painters are groomed in rudimentary art. It is also a long way from the days when he sold pictures to tourists for a few dollars.

“For some time I mix together, combine together with classical and modern art for new art," said Chhim. "Now my artwork is so expensive because it’s a new creation, it’s my concept.”

The resurgence and fusion of local classical art with outside contemporary influences is changing the cultural landscape. Film, dance and music have also a witnessed re-awakening.

Local tendencies

But Mesterharm says there are still nagging problems concerning local art, in particular, there is a tendency to only depict what is considered beautiful. Artists remain reluctant to focus on social issues in a country where poverty and corruption are prevalent.

“Most of the art is quite colorful people try to work with different materials," said Mesterharm. "They work in the fields of sculpture, painting and photography. They also try to do something, which is Cambodian. They try to find their own identity. Only if they do so they will also find a market because this is what this scene still lacks is a local market and an international market.”

While the Cambodian art scene searches for broader recognition, its supporters say local artists have already come a long way, considering how they are working to overcome 30 years of war and the Khmer Rouge, who effectively annihilated Cambodian art and culture for decades.