Khmer art evolution: images of Cambodia reach Hong Kong

Khmer art has its first showing in Hong Kong gallery in almost five years.

Karin Weber Gallery featured five contemporary Cambodian artists in a group exhibition. Reflecting Cambodia’s developing art scene, the Khmer works on display brought the urban complexity of Phnom Penh to Hong Kong’s demanding art audience for the first time since 2009.

Anida Yoeu Ali, ‘Enter the Lot / Stung Meancheay’, 2012, C-type print, 50 x 75 cm. Image courtesy Karin Weber Gallery.

Anida Yoeu Ali, ‘Enter the Lot / Stung Meancheay’, 2012, C-type print, 50 x 75 cm. Image courtesy Karin Weber Gallery.

Hong Kong’s Karin Weber Gallery hosted “SITE/CAMBODIA“, a group exhibition of five contemporary Cambodian artists from 22 June to 17 July 2013. According to the gallery’s press release,

SITE/CAMBODIA presents artists for whom ‘site’ is integral to their practice. Mao Soviet, Anida Yoeu Ali, Kim Hak, Séra and Srey Bandaul navigate sites of change, displacement, melancholy, identity and spirituality, which speak to a Cambodia in transition.

Srey Bandaul , ‘Untitled’ (“Digestion” series), 2013 , cloth, mosquito net, resin, charcoal, water, oil color, 88 x 68 x 17 cm. Image courtesy Karin Weber Gallery.

Srey Bandaul , ‘Untitled’ (“Digestion” series), 2013, cloth, mosquito net, resin, charcoal, water, oil color, 88 x 68 x 17 cm. Image courtesy Karin Weber Gallery.

The exhibition generated much pre-publicity from both Hong Kong and international media sources, such as HK The Asia City Network, ARTINFO and The Culture Trip.

Before “SITE/CAMBODIA”, the last showing of Khmer art was the “Forever Until Now: Contemporary Art from Cambodia exhibition at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in February-March 2009. That year also saw the inclusion of Cambodian artists for the first time in several international exhibitions, such as The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane, Australia, and The 4th Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale in Japan. What has changed in the past four years to generate a renewed interest in Cambodian art?

Claire Knox writing for The Phnom Penh Post interviewed Katie de Tilly, Founder of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, who gave her take on the resurgence.

There is a wonderful evolution of art happening at the nascent stages in Cambodia … I look forward to more artists being exhibited on the international stage from Cambodia. With the lack of Cambodian collectors [in Hong Kong] I assume it will first be appreciated from Western or other Asian collectors leading the way to a confidence in certain artists, much as was done in China in the early days.

The article also quotes Hong Kong art critic and former gallery owner John Batten.

Keen collectors should look at art from the entire Asian region rather than focusing on the contemporary, often radical, Chinese art currently in vogue […] The Chinese contemporary art juggernaut and its promoters overwhelms attention away from the excellent art being done in Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia. Smart art viewers never look at the obvious and hyped – but search out what is artistically good. Contemporary Cambodian art is good.

Sera, ‘Embrace VI’, 2009, mime graphite, ink and acrylic on paper on canvas, 170 x 130 cm. Image courtesy Karin Weber Gallery.

Sera, ‘Embrace VI’, 2009, mime graphite, ink and acrylic on paper on canvas, 170 x 130 cm. Image courtesy Karin Weber Gallery.

SITE as theme 

The gallery press release explains the importance of “site” in relation to Cambodia’s recent history of land rights abuse and urban displacement, an important feature to contemporary Cambodian art.

Sometimes invisible is the displacement of people amidst this change. People and communities – evicted, moved sometimes forcibly to sites further outside the city. What remains temporarily is the evidence of these large communities in debris from their homes. A testament to their existence. An archive.

Meet the Artists

  • Mao Soviet uses found objects at eviction sites to speak about Cambodia’s land grabs and displaced people.
  • Anida Yoeu Ali grew up as a Khmer Muslim in Chicago, her dual identities inform her performance and film work. She is Cofounder of Studio Revolt, Phnom Penh.
  • Kim Hak filmed Phnom Penh from the back of a tuk-tuk, its blackout curtains referencing the country’s historical genocide.
  • Séra, who was exiled to France in 1961, paints melancholic landscapes that signify displacement and loss. 
  • Srey Bandaul uses common household items to create intestinal forms, as the corporal body becomes a “site” of tension, as digesting “foreign” elements can cause some discomfort.
 Mao Soviet, (Foreground) ‘The Black Wood #1’, 2012, acrylic, burnt wood, 68 x 15 cm. (Background) ‘The New Comer #2’, 2012, acrylic, fluorescent tube, burnt wood, 38 x 130 x 10 cm. Image courtesy Karin Weber Gallery.

Mao Soviet, (Foreground) ‘The Black Wood #1’, 2012, acrylic, burnt wood, 68 x 15 cm. (Background) ‘The New Comer #2’, 2012, acrylic, fluorescent tube, burnt wood, 38 x 130 x 10 cm. Image courtesy Karin Weber Gallery.

Cambodia’s art scene

Talking to Art RadarKate O’Hara, the curator of “SITE/CAMBODIA”, said returning diaspora artists like Séra have had a sizable impact on Cambodia’s art scene.

Séra has run a number of workshops with young artists over the last 15 years and is very well respected for the technical and critical offerings he has made.  He is currently working with Phare Ponleu Selpak (one of only two art schools in the country) developing their curriculum in collaboration with the local teachers.

Other more established artists and arts practitioners, such as Khmer-American Sopheap Pich, who cofounded JavaArts with Dana Langlois, were also pivotal in providing support and sustenance to the new generation of artists, said O’Hara.

In the almost five years since Khmer art last went to Hong Kong, the country’s art scene has undergone seismic shifts, according to O’Hara, with “the work of younger generations maturing and with a growing number of platforms, including galleries and festivals, providing support and space for [artists] to experiment.”

Artist Anida Yoeu Ali noted that while there has been a definite surge in Cambodia’s arts, there remain challenges when it comes to contemporary art development and funding.

Cambodia has a Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, the Royal University of Fine Arts, a National Museum, an Apsara Authority, etc. So clearly there is an arts infrastructure and steps towards the rebuilding of such. Even the arts-based NGOs have to work with the Ministry in some capacity for long-term sustainability. The problem is that the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts is very poorly funded, receiving the least amount of funds among all the ministries. In the end I have hope for Cambodian people, raised and living in Cambodia, to have their own self-determination and strategy for the arts, not necessarily relying on the government, NGOs or other foreign institutions – but this is a long haul and it is Cambodian people who are in it for the long haul.

Kim Hak, ‘27’, 2012, C-type print, 50 x 75 cm. Image courtesy Karin Weber Gallery.

Kim Hak, ‘27’, 2012, C-type print, 50 x 75 cm. Image courtesy Karin Weber Gallery.

Susan Kendzulak

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Related Topics: Cambodian artists, interviews, installation art, site-specific art

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