Cambodia’s Art Stars Align in Exhibit at National Museum

An all-star lineup of Cambodian artists and photographers will open next week in Phnom Penh at an uncommon venue for modern art: the National Museum.

The exhibition, “Histories of the Future,” will include works ranging from a print by Sopheap Pich, whose rattan sculptures are in the collection of the Metropolitan Mu­seum of Art in New York City, to works by Leang Seckon, Khvay Sam­nang and Svay Sa­reth, all eminent figures in Cambodia’s arts scene who often ex­hibit abroad.

'Kneeling and Watching the Festivities,' by Leang Seckon (Yean Reaksmey)
‘Kneeling and Watching the Festivities,’ by Leang Seckon (Yean Reaksmey)

An initiative of the Australian Embassy, the exhibition is curated by Dana Langlois of JavaArts in Phnom Penh and features 15 Cambodians who have exhibited in national galleries in Australia or taken part in arts projects supported by its government.

Asked to house the exhibition, National Museum director Kong Vireak said he immediately agreed.

“Several Cambodian artists have exhibited in foreign museums but not at the National Museum,” he said. This project is in line with his long-term plan to ex­pand the mu­seum’s exhibition pro­gram beyond traditional culture to fam­iliarize the Cambodian pub­lic with its contem­porary artists, he added.

The idea that the work being created by today’s artists will become the country’s cultural legacy in the future inspired the name of the ex­hibition, Ms. Lang­lois said.

“In many ways, it’s also very symbolic of the movement in general in contemporary art in Cambodia now: Being very much connected to the past and cultural heritage but also being very present in the present day,” she said.

“Who we are as artists, who we are as Cambodians: That’s what many artists are working through.”

This meeting of the past and present turns whimsical in Mr. Seckon’s painting and leather work featuring Angkorian statues stand­ing amid present-day scenes, such as a couple celebrating Chinese New Year, a Santa Claus and a young couple exchanging Val­entine’s Day flowers. Titled “Kneel­ing and Watch­ing the Festivities,” the work features statues re­­cently returned to the country by U.S. museums.

“They see the new generation, changes in culture…they are surprised,” he said of the statues, stol­en decades ago from Koh Ker tem­ple in Preah Vihear province.

Mr. Sareth found inspiration in a more recent part of the country’s history. His installation “Stake and Skewer” consists of a bamboo pole—similar to those balanced on the shoulders of many food vendors in the city—on which he put a row of sandals with soles made from tires. Bought from a street vendor, they remind him of sandals worn during the Khmer Rouge regime, which he lived through as a child, he said.

The exhibition also features the work of three Australian artists who have collaborated with Cambodian counterparts.

Opening on July 1, “Histories of the Future” runs through August.

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