After an entire generation of artists was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, the Cambodian capital has been rebuilding its art scene, one brush stroke at a time.
The period following the Pol Pot era saw artists focused on rediscovering traditional art, while creating new works to remind future generations of the genocide. However, Vuth Lyno from Art Rebels, an artist collective, calls this preoccupation a “trap” – a fixation on preserving memories of the genocide without realising that Cambodian identity is fluid. Thankfully, that’s now changing – young artists are increasingly producing works that are introspective, yet still connected to the social issues of their time.
Among the leaders of this paradigm shift is Java Café and Gallery. Founded in 2000, the café has been showcasing works that deal with varied themes, from eroticism to cultural colonialism.
Sa Sa Bassac, a contemporary art gallery shaped like a white cube, has also been trying to throw off the shackles of the past. Here, you’ll find the thought-provoking works of young home-grown artists – from Kong Dara’s maps of gay communities throughout South-East Asia, to Yim Maline’s abstract drawings representing her childhood spent in a refugee camp by the Thai-Cambodian border.
In 2010, the Art Rebels founded Sa Sa Art Projects in a bid to promote experimental art. It’s located in the White Building, which was built in 1963 as a housing project but was subsequently abandoned during the Khmer Rouge regime. After 1979, squatters and a few artists started to trickle back, but today it cuts a ramshackle figure in a seedy neighbourhood.
Nevertheless, the artists-in-residence are striving to maintain the complex as a hub for public art. Within its moss-covered walls, residents and visitors can attend art salons, watch classical dance on the roof, or listen to noise art – inconceivable a decade ago.
While Phnom Penh has yet to strike the perfect balance between remembering the past and creating art without social obligations, it’s very much a work in progress. Most importantly, as these galleries demonstrate, art in the city today is finally being created by the people, for the people.
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This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine