When students in the Royal University of Fine Arts’ class on outdoor landscape painting decided to do a project that captured the changing landscape of Phnom Penh, they immediately knew where they wanted to go.
“We decided to choose the Chroy Changva peninsula,” said Chan Vitharin, one of their teachers. “We learned that the government has permitted a development project to develop the area into a satellite city. So something we see this month may disappear and be replaced by new buildings, or something we see this day might be still there.”
So over the course of the last six months, a group of about 15 students and their teachers made frequent trips to the peninsula, virtually embedding themselves in the community there.
“The Cham community are habituated to see us,” said Mexican artist Fernando Aceves Humana, another teacher. “We’re like a silent invasion. We go there and we sit.”
The work that emerged from the students’ observation of life on the peninsula will be shown in an exhibition opening tonight, “Chroy Changva, a Disappearing Context.”
The title hints at the fact that, in addition to practicing their painting skills, the students were hoping to capture the spirit of the area before it changes irrevocably.
“Paintings can be a record of a place,” Mr. Aceves Humana said.
But even as they strive to preserve the look and feel of the peninsula as it is today, the young artists had to be intensely attuned to the tiny changes that animate a landscape over the course of a day, especially alterations in light and shadows.
“The light over a landscape at 4:00 p.m. is different from the light at 4:15 p.m. or 4:30 p.m.,” said Mr. Vitharin. Because of this, students must work fast and try to memorize the quality of light and details of a scene so they can complete it even when conditions change, he said.
Student Srun Rida, 23, said the project had helped him overcome the nervousness he felt while painting in a studio. While working outside, he said, “I feel free and directly connect with nature and light.”
The exhibition is being held because the students’ frequent trips to Chroy Changva attracted the attention of one of the peninsula’s residents, Ludgera Klemp, the head of cooperation at the German Embassy. When she heard of their project, she was touched by their appreciation for the landscape.
“I love the river…. We need to do a lot to conserve this natural heritage,” she said.
Ms. Klemp mentioned the students to an owner of the Bellevue Serviced Apartments, where she lives, and he suggested exhibiting the paintings on the building’s rooftop terrace.
The show opens at 6 p.m. at the Bellevue. It runs for one week.