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Successful International Auction Raises Hopes for Cambodia's Artists

Peap Tarr stands in front of a painting he has up for sale as part of Cambodia's first high-level auction, which took place on March 11, 2012.
Peap Tarr stands in front of a painting he has up for sale as part of Cambodia's first high-level auction, which took place on March 11, 2012.

Cambodia has held its first international art auction, with the backing of the well-known art house, Christie’s. Though Khmer antiquities are highly sought-after on the global stage, the country’s modern art remains relatively unknown.

Madeleine de Langalerie has watched the country’s art scene slowly grow over the last decade and a half. When the French journalist first moved there about 15 years ago, she saw talent in the work of young artists, but originality was more difficult to find.

“I think at the very beginning they try to copy, because it is the only thing to do," Langalerie said. "But with the television, with the influence of the outside, of Thai, of Vietnamese, of Japan, mainly Japanese, I think they start to see other things.”

These days, new boutique galleries have sprung up throughout the city, showing homegrown work by local talent. A handful of Cambodian artists are already gaining notice abroad.

But what many young artists need is an extra push for international buyers to take notice.

That was the idea behind staging an international art auction here in Phnom Penh. On March 11, an auctioneer from Christie’s presided over the country’s first high-level art auction. Proceeds from the charity auction will be donated to a local arts group.

But de Langalerie says the real value will be the exposure for the country’s lesser known artists and the local galleries that support them.

“I think this push should be in help to try and put Phnom Penh as a good place for artists," she said. "If you think about artists, maybe you should come and see galleries in Phnom Penh.”

Artists like painter Peap Tarr stand to benefit. The Cambodian-New Zealander has two collaborative works for sale, including an intricately detailed acrylic-on-canvas piece measuring more than four square meters.

Tarr started out as a graffiti artist in in New Zealand, where he grew up. But he gradually began to fuse styles and elements from his Cambodian ancestry into his work.

“There is a uniqueness that comes out of Cambodia. There is a long heritage," Tarr explained. "Over a 1,000 year heritage here of art and culture. Hopefully people will learn that. In some ways I think it gains more respect for the Khmer culture. And also I think it gives back more pride to the Khmer people. Culture and art, it does in some way give culture and dignity back to a people.”

On this afternoon, the busy hotel ballroom is almost full, but most are onlookers watching as a handful of buyers bid on the artwork. At the front of the room, auctioneer Lionel Gosset playfully encourages the buyers to inflate their bids.

The crowd applauds as the most sought after piece, a large morning glory plant sculpted in rattan wood, sells for $9,000.

By the end of the afternoon, buyers have snapped up about 40 works of art, at a cost of $40,000 in all. Gosset says, it is a promising sign for the Cambodian art scene.

“I think the room was crowded. It's a good signal for Cambodia. That means that Khmer are very interested by art," Gosset said. "And the results are good. It's a good result.”

For painter Lisa Mam, it was the first time she has sold her work at auction. She says she wants to show that her country’s artists are able to fuse their well-known traditional art with a new vitality.

“Cambodian art would be something really fresh," Mam declared. "Just like what I’m doing right now is fresh and new. We're trying to take the art of the ancient time and also the modern society to come together and create something new.”

For now, Mam wants to use the exposure from the auction as a springboard for her career. And she hopes her work will play a role in growing Cambodia’s modern art scene.