I was on a bit of trail in Cambodia, an artistic one, which took me up the country and into some very creative spaces and offered some interesting historical insights.
After the Khmer Rouge genocide in the late 70s, most of the intellectual community, artists, musicians and writers were killed. The art school was closed and physical survival became priority, not artistic creation. As a result much of the country's cultural heritage was damaged. In the years that followed, preserving some of that heritage became crucial to maintaining cultural history. Today, that task remains, but so too does creating a contemporary arts scene which reflects and respects the recent history of the country, while healing Cambodia into the 21st Century. It is a task which Dana Langlois, Sasha Constable, John Weeks, and Srey Bandole (a few of the people I met while in Cambodia) have taken on, and who are helping to create a new artistic life in the country.
Dana Langlois, the founder of Java Arts Cambodia
, started off opening a coffee shop in Phnom Penh, with a small gallery attached. The café became increaslingly popular, and as it grew, more and more people were coming in contact with contemporary artists through the gallery. From her experience with the exhibiting artists, Dana recognised the need for a forum to promote Cambodian arts. So emerged the Cambodian Arts Network, a forum to support indigenous artists and try to generate enough income and support for the artistic scene to flourish. Dana has just opened a new gallery in Phnom Penh to contribute to doing just that.
Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor are a must on any travel itinerary to Cambodia. I spent a few days in Siem Reap marvelling at the temples, where art and nature now are intertwined; tree trunks and architraves enmeshed. The temples blew me away and as I contemplated the cultural legacy of the Angkor era, I was also thinking about the genetic artistic linage that such a cultural could create, asking myself 'Is art in their blood'?
Sasha Constanble who runs the Art House
, a gallery in Siem Reap, would answer 'Yes'. She told me she she sees it through her work both teaching sculptor and as a curator, and spoke of a rich Cambodian talent which due to a lack of opportunity for artists is undeveloped. Like Java Arts, Sasha hopes that The Art House will become a place to support emergent talent. Srey Bandole, one of artists exhibited in The Art House is just one of those talents.
(on my way to Battambang)
I met up with Srey Bandole in a city called Battambang, a six hour boat trip from Siem Reap. Chatting with him, I realised that his own work goes well beyond creation of individual art pieces to creating a culture and community which supports artistic expression, one in which artists can earn a living through their work. Bandole founded the Phare Arts School
to achieve those ends.
A visit to the school was an impressive and entertaining affair. Phare is one of two arts schools in the country, with fine arts, music and circus training as options. Today over 1000 people attend, from primary to college level. Regular classes (Maths, English, Khmer etc) take place in the morning, and in the afternoons, children are given the choice as to what stream they want. It makes for a colourful backdrop.
(Some of the pulips at Phare primary school)
In addition, through the sale of work and circus performances the school can fund social workers for the community, and can provide some education scholarships to pupils.
I went along to an incredible circus performance one of the evenings I was there, cheering and screaming along with about 50 local kids, as fire throwers, acrobats, jugglers and gymnasts had us on the edge of our seats. This in Cambodia? Now, that was something I would not have expected.
Back in Phnom Penh, I continued to follow the Arts Theme, meeting up with Delfine Kassam, founder of Sovannah Phum
, an arts association which brings dancers and musicians together. Weekly shows give performers a source of income, while helping to keep the traditional arts alive- including Khmer Shadow Puppetry. Performances portray social messages, and Sovanna have prepared shows on HIV/ Aids prevention and environmental protection. A troupe is currently preparing for a tour about the bird flu! Delfine herself used to be a circus performer and gained the money to travel by busking and selling juggling equipment en route.
A reading population is a learning one. But literacy is not widespread in Cambodia and the country does not have a reading culture. But for John Weeks and his dedicated team at Our Books, they believe it can and should be. They also have a passion for comics and see the creation of a comic books a means to get people reading.
John and his team were busy distributing their first comic book on the theme of anti-corruption, to schools across Cambodia when I was there. The Khmer version was hot off the press and an English version was just being proof read. Alongside that, they are archiving old Khmer comics, creating digital copies as another means to record a piece of Khmer history which otherwise would be lost.
‘If we did not do it’, John explained, ‘nobody would’.
(A huge huge thanks to John Weeks for this help during my time in Cambodia- for all the contacts, lending me a phone, and the general ‘heads-up’ on happenings).