Transformative traditions: Dana Langlois and Reaksmey Yean of Cambodia’s JavaArts – in conversation

Prominent Phnom Penh gallery seeks to make contemporary art accessible through initiatives. 

Java Café and Gallery founder Dana Langlois and Curator for Creative Programmes Reaksmey Yean speak with Art Radar about the art space’s inception nearly two decades on and its ever-evolving future projects.

Neak Sophal, 'Behind 9', 2012, photograph, 60 x 85 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Neak Sophal, ‘Behind 9’, 2012, photograph, 60 x 85 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Based in Phnom Penh since 1998, Dana Langlois founded JavaArts in 2000. In addition to the café and gallery that makes up JavaArts, Langlois also founded experimental gallery Sala Artspace and Our City Festival.

Java Gallery’s current Curator for Creative Programmes, Reaksmey Yean worked for art organization Phare Ponleu Selpak as an Assistant to the Department of Performing Arts and Administrator of Artist Residency Programmes (EU) and Cambodian Living Arts as a Communication and Advertising Officer and Production and Logistic Officer. Yean is also the founder of Trotchaek Pneik.

Langlois and Yean talked with Art Radar about the rapid changes engulfing Cambodia’s urban capital and the echo of the country’s brutal genocide under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, where an estimated 1.7 to 2.5 million people perished between 1975 and 1979.

Seckon Leang, 'Kneeling and Watching the Festivities', 2016, painting, embroidery and collage on canvas. Image courtesy of artist.

Seckon Leang, ‘Kneeling and Watching the Festivities’, 2016, painting, embroidery and collage on canvas. Image courtesy of artist.

Dana, you founded JavaArts in 2000. As one of the first contemporary art galleries in Cambodia, how has the mission of the organisation changed from its inception until present day? 

Dana Langlois (DL): When I first opened Java in 2000, the focus of the gallery program was to showcase both Cambodian and foreign artists with the intention to subtly create a conversation across borders. As things developed over the years, the focus shifted to almost exclusively Cambodian artists in response to the growing art scene. Since the beginning, the exhibitions have mostly been solo shows, which in many ways led to a more artist-based and process-based programming, including workshops, residencies and a talk series.

This expanded the focus to the arts community, cultivating collaboration and grassroots projects. Most notably was Our City Festival (2008-2014), which brought together hundreds of artists and several arts organizations to create events across the country for local and international audiences. Currently, Java has opened a position for Curator, to support and build the talent of individuals like Reaksmey Yean and others in the future. Probably, the most exciting new initiative that Java is spearheading is a platform to bring contemporary and modern Cambodian art to the National Museum of Cambodia. Although initiatives and programs have changed over the years, experimenting and responding to various shifts, Java’s vision has always been to make art accessible and meaningful within its immediate context.

The National Museum of Cambodia. Photo: Dana Langlois.

The National Museum of Cambodia. Photo: Dana Langlois.

Has the contemporary art scene in Phnom Penh changed, say in the past decade? If so, how? What are some of the obstacles that current day artists face that earlier contemporary artists didn’t?

DL: In the last decade, the art scene in Cambodia has grown quite a lot with increasing numbers of artists, arts managers/producers, and spaces. Artists are traveling to participate in residencies, exhibitions, biennales and other art events. In general, there is a greater global recognition of contemporary Cambodian art, which brings with it challenges of accessibility. For many artists, it’s difficult to stay up-to-date and access information about opportunities and it is even harder to communicate and participate. There are also many financial challenges for most artists – which is not exclusive to Cambodia. But Cambodia is further hindered because it lacks funding opportunities with few donors, grants, and almost no corporate sponsorship and a very small commercial market. The artists are limited largely to the international market, which as a result can limit opportunities for experimentation, and process-based and academic activities. It is not all dire, however, as things do keep developing thanks to the many people in the arts community who work very hard for it.

Reaksmey Yean (RY): I didn’t arrive to Phnom Penh until 2011. The only thing I know about the changes within Phnom Penh art scene is that some professional galleries were forced to shut down mostly for economic reasons.

Chan Dany, Kback Phni Tes, pencil shavings. Image courtesy the artist.

Chan Dany, Kback Phni Tes, pencil shavings. Image courtesy the artist.

Is today’s newest generation of artists using both traditional and modern methods to produce their work or are they moving away from that and using new technologies and techniques?

DL: I’m struggling with this question as I think it is difficult to draw a line between tradition/modern, past/present. Instead, I would say that there is a constant reevaluation of the “now” and that everything comes into play. And neither is this questioning and criticality limited to the 21st [century] experimentation and adaptation, which has been part of the creative process for many centuries, with political forces having a strong influence on the degree of which it is implemented. Discussing this with Reaksmey, we both feel that it is important to look at the cyclical nature of time, as opposed to a linear progression.

RY: Speaking about time, it is important to emphasize here that, despite the Khmer Rouge atrocity and its aftermaths, Cambodia has a long tradition of art making. External influences are evident, but this, of course, happened elsewhere in the world. There are always cross-cultural exchanges and influences. The continuation of the so-called traditional practice in one way or another remains and will continue to be present within Cambodia, I believe.

For example, Leang Seckon’s use of leather, which is a material that has been used for thousands of years in Cambodia for shadow puppets and traditional ornamentation known as Kbach, which is deployed for Chan Dany’s contemporary practices. There is also Sopheap Pich’s use of rattan and bamboo. One could argue that the use of these materials are regional. However, they have been embedded in Khmer culture for centuries. The most interesting part to notice here is that, the artists know how to use these materials and transform them into their own identity or signature, making them pertinent in the current social and political context.

Sopheap Pich, 'Raft', 2009, rattan, plywood, wire, metal and bolts, 449 x 225 x 131 cm. Photo: Vandy Rattana. Image courtesy the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Arts.

Sopheap Pich, ‘Raft’, 2009, rattan, plywood, wire, metal and bolts, 449 x 225 x 131 cm. Photo: Vandy Rattana. Image courtesy the artist and Tyler Rollins Fine Arts.

Are new types of media being used by today’s artists? If so, which ones are the favourites of local artists?

DL: In recent times, many artists have had the opportunity to adopt photography and video as part of their practice – a technology that was largely inaccessible for a few decades. A resurgence of patronage, and commercial support have seen the film industry grow exponentially, calling to mind Cambodia’s “Golden Age” in the 60s. Interestingly, some artists don’t identify as photographers or filmmakers but instead, it is a medium to convey their artistic vision usually rooted in performance or interventionism. Others consider the use of the medium an artistic act in itself – like documentary photography. Additionally, the print workshop at the Royal University of Fine Arts, initiated by Fernando Aceves, has materials and equipment available for lithography. Still, because of the prolific nature of digital technology, photography and video tend to be preferred.

RY: Although cameras have been a subject of interest, however, there are still very few artists that produce video arts. The only artists that do this, at least to my knowledge, are Khvay Samnang and Lim Sokchanlina, who were part also of the recent, curated exhibition by Dana at the National Museum of Cambodia, Histories of The Future. In addition, the number of female photographers is still very low. The only female artist-photographer I know of is Neak Sophal, who will be doing a solo exhibition at Java Café later on this year.

Sokchanlina Lim, 'Urban Street Night Club', 2013, digital still, single channel video, color, sound, 16_16 mins. Image courtesy the artist and SA SA BASSAC.

Sokchanlina Lim, ‘Urban Street Night Club’, 2013, digital still, single channel video, color, sound, 16_16 mins. Image courtesy the artist and SA SA BASSAC.

You previously worked for Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang and Cambodian Living Arts. How did these experiences help prepare you for a career in contemporary art? 

RY:  Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPSA) is a place where my arts appreciation and scholarship were first cultivated. I started my relationship with PPSA when I was eight years old and enrolled there for informal education and drawing. This place has a bittersweet memory in my life. It was here that I was introduced to contemporary arts or arts in general. Professionally, I worked at Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) for only six months. It is important to mention that CLA and I started our bond way before I started working for them, however and it was through the events that CLA organized that we first met. In short, I would say that my experiences at PPSA provoked me to think of the future, whereas CLA prompted me to connect with tradition, or the past.

My job currently at Java Café is to see how they both are interconnected. I believe that’s why I became very interested in both historical and contemporary narratives. I believe they are intertwined and interwoven and it’s impossible to distinguish them. I believe this is why my curatorial and critical approaches are pretty much interdisciplinary. I appreciate all kinds of talents, creativity and forms. They influence my research methodologies.

Sareth Svay, 'Stake or Skewer', 2015, wood, 17 rubber sandals, 149 x 150 x 25 cm. Image Courtesy of artist and SA SA BASSAC.

Sareth Svay, ‘Stake or Skewer’, 2015, wood, 17 rubber sandals, 149 x 150 x 25 cm. Image Courtesy of artist and SA SA BASSAC.

Dana curated “Histories of the Future”, a show of contemporary Khmer and Australian artists in 2016, marking the first time that contemporary Khmer artists’ works were shown at the historic National Museum of Cambodia. How did the local audience respond to having contemporary artwork in a museum that houses historical pieces? 

RY: I think it is important to highlight here that the exhibition took place for about four months – during which period the exhibition received 54,721 people, among them 12,783 Cambodian nationals. I wanted to emphasize that this number does not include local students to whom tickets are not required to visit the museum. I believe this is the only contemporary art show in Cambodia that welcomed such a number of audiences – this does not mean that other shows have no significant value or interesting content – but it proves that the National Museum is a great place for audience development, particularly for the contemporary art world of Cambodia. As for how the audiences themselves reacted to the show, it is hard to measure it in its entirety. To some certain extent, not many Cambodians are well-aware of the existence or the presence of Contemporary art within Cambodia. In fact, the term contemporary itself in Khmer language is an alienated concept.

Besides the appreciation and compliments from our friends of the art community, I remember listening to a group of grannies and Cambodian students as they reacted to Svay Sareth’s Stalker and Skewer, Leang Seckon’s Kneeling and Watching the Festivities, Anida Yoeu Ali’s Buddhist Bug and the Hawker’s Song installation. A group of grannies spent five to ten minutes staring at Svay’s piece, which to me is very unusual. They were talking about the shoes and their memories of the Khmer Rouge. The work is fortified for the purpose of protection but they leaned into the work and touched it. I listened to their conversation and I felt so happy that this object could provoke such conversation and curiosity.

Another interesting story is about the museum staff themselves. They were obsessed by the Hawker’s Song installation. They would ask me all the time to explain what it is – and how junk could become a work of art and placed within the museum. Now every time I return to the museum since the show is finished, the museum staff asks me when I will do an exhibition again? I tell them as long as the museum is happy to host us!

Anida Yoeu Ali, 'Into Dreamland, 2015, "The Buddhist Bug", a project of Studio Revolt, performance and concept by Anida Yoeu Ali, digital color print on film, lightbox, 75 x 112.5 cm. Photo: Masahiro Sugano and Sam Jam. Image courtesy the artist and Studio Revolt.

Anida Yoeu Ali, ‘Into Dreamland, 2015, “The Buddhist Bug”, a project of Studio Revolt, performance and concept by Anida Yoeu Ali, digital color print on film, lightbox, 75 x 112.5 cm. Photo: Masahiro Sugano and Sam Jam. Image courtesy the artist and Studio Revolt.

Late in 2016, the gallery had an exhibition called “Drunk Nude” from 2017 Sovereign Asian Art Prize nominee Heng Ravuth. Please tell us more about his work and how the subject of nudity in art is received in Cambodia. 

RY: Dana made the arrangements with the artist before I took over the gallery’s curatorial programs. During the course of speaking and working together with Heng Ravuth, I found his artistic expression very fascinating. Frankly speaking, I do not like every piece of his but to Ravuth, he doesn’t care whether people will like them or not. He just wants to express himself and experiment with his ideas. I like him for that. I think he is very brave to try something new and explore what works for him. His work to capture nudity as a subject matter, which as many know is a taboo subject in Cambodia, is very brave.

Nudity is a core element throughout his artistic practice and he is the only artist obsessed with it. It has become his signature. As part of a quest to explore the inner self and self-identity and at the same time searching to expand his artistic practice, Ravuth’s Drunk Nude depicts realities in a distorted and fantasized manner full of complexity and ambiguity.

Heng Ravuth, 'Naked with Tire', 2015-2016, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 90 cm. Photo: ©Reaksmey Yean.

Heng Ravuth, ‘Naked with Tire’, 2015-2016, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 90 cm. Photo: ©Reaksmey Yean.

The gallery’s final show of 2016 was “Striving” by Chov Theanly, whose work was inspired by Khmer artist Nhek Dim and 19th century Russian painters. I can’t help but feel this artist’s work is a reflection of the rapid urban development seen in the past decade. Please tell us about one of your favourite pieces from this series and why you like it. 

RY: Striving featured eleven pieces. My so-called favorite of this series changed and evolved over time from when I first encountered the works, to my visit at the artist’s studio and finally to when we received the artworks at the gallery. Although my favorite was not well liked by many, I still believe it is absolutely a wonderful piece from Chov Theanly. It is called Old Building, a piece that the artist completed during the final stage of the series and one I did not see until we received the works at the gallery. It portrays a young maiden with her eyes blindfolded with a checkered kroma. She is sitting on the grass in front of a colonial era building surrounded by greenery. Her right hand holds a rose, which she places in front of her face – like she is smelling the flower.

This piece speaks to me at several levels and I believe it represents Theanly and his artistic merit. First, it shows the root of his artistic influence, Nhek Dim’s painterly style – which is mostly seen in a form of the female figure and landscape. Then, the young maiden’s costume reminds me of the look of the sixties and the sense of past. Yet, it destroys our longing of the past, when we learn that the lady is a contemporary figure. Due to this effect and in its own simplistic manner, the work is at once very abstract. If the artist shows the background as what is now in reality the change of cityscape, then it is not interesting. It is interesting, because in fact the building has been destroyed and now is a car showroom. The view has been altered by tall buildings because of government urbanization projects. The question then remains why she is blindfolded? My personal interpretation of this image is the story behind the checkered kroma, which to me is a very political message. I like to pose a question especially since she is blindfolded, does she really know that she’s smelling a rose – it’s very tricky.

Chov Theanly, 'Old Building', 2016, oil on canvas, 100 x 150 cm. Photo: ©Reaksmey Yean.

Chov Theanly, ‘Old Building’, 2016, oil on canvas, 100 x 150 cm. Photo: ©Reaksmey Yean.

I am intrigued about your first exhibition of the new year called “There’s a Ghost in My House” featuring work by Australian artist Philip Faulks. Can you speak more about Philip’s work and in particular, the title of the show?

DL: The current exhibition came about through a friend who introduced me to Philip Faulks. I connected to the work on an aesthetic level almost immediately. It reminded me of another artist, Nic Grey, whom I have worked with several years. I knew I wanted to show the work but there were practical challenges of getting the work from Australia to Cambodia. Fortunately, Philip managed to secure funding for it and it worked out as a great collaboration.

The title, I agree, is very intriguing. When talking to Philip he elaborated on his thoughts about how we carry past mythologies within us, embedded in our DNA – that it forms part of who we are as humans. I think what is most striking for me is the universal nature of the need of humans to seek to explain the spiritual, the unexplainable – which in my view unites us all despite our varying mythological manifestations. And of course, the occasional naughty bits that show up in Philip’s works keeps us grounded in our own flesh.

Philip Faulks, 'Management Structure', 2016, ink and gouache on paper, 100 x 130 cm. Image courtesy of the artist

Philip Faulks, ‘Management Structure’, 2016, ink and gouache on paper, 100 x 130 cm. Image courtesy of the artist

Please tell us about any upcoming creative programmes and exhibitions that will be offered in 2017. 

RY: I think we have a bunch of exciting programs and exhibitions in 2017 here at Java. The one immediately after “There’s a Ghost in My House” is called The Object(s) of Collecting. It is one of the most important and golden program ever produced here at Java. Then, we will have three female artists in three separate exhibitions by an emerging artist-photographer, Neak Sophal, Upside Down by an established surrealist painter, Oeur Sokuntevy, and paper-cut exhibition by Lauren Iida.

Lisa Pollman


Related Topics: Cambodian artists, emerging artists, interviews, independent art space, identity art

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