In September 2009, the Ministry of Culture decided to restructure the two institutions charged with training the nation’s visual artists, dancers, musicians, architects and archeologists.
Those enrolled in baccalaureate programs were the lucky ones: They were regrouped on the campus next to the National Museum where painters and sculptors have been studying since an art school was set up there nearly a century ago.
Although some of the original campus buildings are a bit tired and it lacks some equipment and facilities, the location of the Royal University of Fine Arts at the heart on Phnom Penh makes it ideal for students.
Less fortunate were the fine arts students and teachers at the secondary school level who were transferred to the far-away campus of Sen Sok district’s Phnom Penh Thmei commune, which turns into a field of mud with any light rain let alone the downpours of the rainy season.
Originally located off Monivong Boulevard near the French Embassy, in 2005 the campus was moved to that location about five km from the center of Phnom Penh as part of a land exchange agreement between the government and the agribusiness firm Mong Reththy Group. Some of the facilities built in haste at the time of the swap soon began to sink.
Over the last three years, however, tremendous improvements have been made on the campus that now houses all students of the Secondary School of Fine Arts. Four-story buildings have risen to accommodate music, dance, arts and theater classes and there is now drinking water and reliable electricity. Students who had all but deserted the school after the move have since returned.
Still the two campuses could not be more different: They seem to belong to different eras.
The secondary school campus in its tree-less field is reminiscent of a 1980s refugee camp. Its most pressing problems include getting toilets for the students–circus-arts students could also do with shower facilities after their 3-hour daily practices–eliminating flooding, and handling refuse as there is no garbage collection service for the rubbish that more than 1,000 students and teachers cannot fail to produce.
In the meantime, RUFA is already planning for the 2020s. Rector Bong Sovath is concerned with raising the level of expertise to international standards and offering master’s and doctorate programs within a decade.
The Royal University of Fine Arts
On any given morning during school term, students can be seen at tables shaded by trees, or sitting around the courtyard with laptops, notebooks and sketch pads. Sculptures in traditional and contemporary styles are scattered throughout the grounds, and there are garbage cans here and there, which are obviously used since the grounds display no refuse.
This clean and peaceful environment is in large part due to Bong Sovath who was appointed rector three years ago. Supported by the Ministry of Culture, his contribution has included giving some of the buildings a coat of paint and creating areas for students and teachers to work and relax on campus.
This made a great deal of difference, said Pen Samol, vice dean of the Faculty of Music and a violinist. “When students and teachers come to their work and they see a good and clean place, it’s very important,” he said.
To provide exhibition space for the university’s fine arts teachers and students, Mr Sovath took advantage of the fact that the campus is set along Daun Penh district’s Street 178, a street of private galleries. He set up a large art gallery on campus grounds but fronting the street, open every day but Sunday.
“Our production is different from other shops, private shops: We select the best quality to sell in the exhibition hall because this hall represents our university,” he said.
Of course, some important questions on campus remain to be addressed. As architecture student Cheav Molika pointed out, the university needs more and newer computers with up-to-date software.
Moreover, said design student Kim Samnang, who is vice-president of the students’ Visual Communication Association, “Although our buildings and the campus’s compound are beautiful and clean, I think it’s still a small one and doesn’t have enough space for sport activities.”
And RUFA’s orchestra of about 80 traditional and Western classical music teachers and students wished they had an amphitheater to rehearse together with the university choir, Mr Samol said.
Mr Sovath agreed. “We have the team, we have the instruments, we have the notes, but it’s hard for us to find a place to perform,” he said. The university requires a meeting hall for dance and music performances as well as to serve as meeting space, he said.
As a whole, RUFA’s facilities could do with an overhaul. But all this can be remedied in the future: The most pressing issue goes far beyond matters of facilities and equipment, Mr Sovath said.
“We need people with master’s degrees or PhDs to teach at the university. But there’s no way that we can get them because…we have no graduate program,” he said. “The teachers we have with masters or PhDs have obtained their degrees abroad,” explained Mr Sovath who holds a PhD in archeology from the University of Hawaii.
“That’s why it is now our intention to create a master’s program at the university. But we also want quality, not just a degree….the quality of a lecturer who gets a master’s degree and is qualified to teach at university level.”
“We want to have a university of as high-quality standards as universities of arts in other countries. And in order to do that, we must have our own qualified lecturers and in sufficient numbers,” Mr Sovath said.
As one step towards this goal, RUFA is now working with French institutions to set up bachelor programs that will be recognized both in Cambodia and France.
This project planned to start next year will aim both to train students and prepare teachers to pursue doctorate degrees, said Anaid Donabedian, director of the research department on languages’ structure and dynamics which is based at Inalco, France’s national institute of eastern languages and civilizations.
The project’s long-term goals include helping to raise overall teachers’ qualifications and to train researchers in order to create a research institute at RUFA, she said.
Bachelor programs with diplomas recognized by both RUFA and Inalco will be offered in the fields of history, art history and archeology; linguistics, epigraphy and anthropology,” said Inalco linguist Deth Thach, who has worked on developing the project.
Meanwhile, RUFA is helping teachers and students master foreign languages to improve their skills as well as to prepare them to study abroad, Mr Sovath said.
A legacy of the French protectorate in the past century, numerous documents and research materials on Cambodia’s history, culture, tradition and architecture as well as studies on pre-Angkorian and Angkorian temples are in French, which makes it imperative for archeology students to know French. For a number of years, Sok Pheav has been teaching French architectural terms to students in first and second years in architecture.
In addition, Mr Sovath said, “We encourage our young staff to take French language. We created one class here for young staff with support from the AUF [international association of French-language universities] and we have sent 20 young staff to take French language at the Centre culturel francais” in Phnom Penh.
In Mr Sovath’s opinion, foreign language skills are essential for any teacher or student aiming to get a scholarship to study abroad.
Even to go to neighboring countries, students must master English, he said. “If they have no [foreign] language, no matter how good they are, they cannot go.”
“I tell my students that they cannot start studying the language only once they are in the country of the scholarship.” For example, even though the Korea National University of Arts in Seoul has language classes for foreign students, RUFA has set up a Korean language class since that university is offering scholarships.
For RUFA, obtaining scholarships for teachers or students is easy, Mr Sovath said. But the university must make sure that they can truly take advantage of them, he said.
“Language is a bridge: If they want to seize the knowledge, the skills, they have to learn the language,” he said.
One way to raise RUFA’s standards in fine arts, dance and music will be to enable Cambodia’s ageing master artists get bachelor and master’s degrees so they can teach at university level. “They have the talent, they have the skills: They did not have the chance to attend classes,” Mr Sovath said.
Arts students who come to RUFA are usually graduates from the Secondary School of Fine Arts, Mr Sovath said.
“When we train them seven or eight years [at the Secondary School], they don’t have to spend four more years at university unless they are really, really skilled and talented. Then they can continue to be a conductor or composer or choreographer. But all of them cannot be that good, and should go on to other places.”
In other Asean countries, students don’t have to continue in the arts after attending an arts secondary school, Mr Sovath said. Even if they choose to switch to information technologies, economics or sciences, he said, “The notion of the arts is still there: This is the way we build the identity, the knowledge of culture among people.”
This makes it imperative to give students at the Secondary School of Fine Arts a solid all-round education so that they have the choice of getting into other fields afterwards, he noted.
Among future projects in the arts, RUFA plans to offer courses in three feature-film fields–acting, filming and directing–perhaps as early as next year with the support of the Korea National University of Arts, he said.
This would launch a feature film program in a modest way, he said. Because equipment for film courses is costly and also since there are few job opportunities in the field, RUFA does not intend to launch a major film program at this point, Mr Sovath said.
Due to the cost of equipment, photography is taught at RUFA but not as a major.
Still, the university intends to increase the number of specializations offered in fine arts, said So Chenda, dean of the Faculty of Visual Arts.
“A long time ago we had majors such as etching in visual arts, weaving and silk print in traditional arts,” he said.
In addition to current programs in sculpture and painting, he said, “We need more majors for students. For instance in some traditional fields like murals or weaving which we don’t have at university level, and also in modern arts like graphic arts and etching.”
This is one of the reasons why Mr Chenda hopes that the four Mexican artists who held a month-long etching workshop in May will return in the near future.
Last month, a cargo containing an etching press arrived in Phnom Penh bound for RUFA. The 390-kilogram press had traveled all the way from Mexico by ship, explained Fernando Aceves Humana, a Mexican artist whose work has been exhibited throughout Europe and is due to be shown in Berlin in the coming weeks.
Realizing that there was no etching press in Cambodia, Mr Aceves Humana decided to purchase one for RUFA at his own expense. Freight was paid by the artist Francisco Castro-Lenero, a teacher at Mexico City’s Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico whose paintings appear in several museums around the world including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Another artist, Nicolas (Jose) Guzman Aguilar, convinced an art supply store owner in Mexico City to donate $3,000 worth of material in exchange for an artwork. He and artist Irais Idalid Esparza-Franco brought those supplies to RUFA for the workshop.
With the help of Phnom Penh curator Lydia Parusol, who coordinated with Mr Chenda, the four artists spent the month of May teaching wood and metal etching techniques to an enthusiastic group of teachers and students.
Mr Castro-Lenero and Mr Chenda are now working on getting a RUFA teacher to study in Mexico and Mr Chenda hopes to make the workshop by these Mexican artists a long-term project.
The Secondary School of Fine Arts
Traveling the five km from downtown Phnom Penh to the campus of the Secondary School of Fine Arts has become easier. Due to real estate development in Sen Sok district’s Phnom Penh Thmei commune, roads are paved.
Until one gets close to the campus, that is. A dirt road and, at this time of year a muddy one, still leads to the school.
Muddy grounds and flooding are more than a passing inconvenience on the campus. Because of this, the school cannot create areas for students to study or relax in between classes, and even hesitate to set up a proper library in fear of having precious books and documents damaged by water that at times may rise to half a meter. Their plans to turn the grounds into a pleasant garden setting have had to be put on hold.
Nevertheless, a great many improvements have been made over the last three years with support from the Ministry of Culture.
The most noticeable change is that students are back. When the campus was moved from its central location to this distant field, the cost of transportation that the distance entailed plus the dismal conditions at that new campus had caused a drastic drop in attendance.
Today, the bus service provided by King Norodom Sihamoni–which students and teachers wished would expand–and better roads make it easier to reach.
School authorities have built three four-story classroom buildings to accommodate fine arts students who were moved from the RUFA campus. However the circus facility donated by King Sihamoni several years ago has not gone up as government officials are still debating whether it should be built on campus or closer to town.
There now is electrical power and drinking water on campus although the lack of students’ toilets remains to be solved, and shower facilities for circus-arts or dance students are but a dream.
Mornings at the school are dedicated to arts classes, the afternoons to regular subjects, and on a recent morning, hundreds of students were at work throughout the campus.
In a second-story classroom, French Cambodian director Mam Narom was explaining timing in comedy in a theater rehearsal. Mr Narom is a member of a French association of former RUFA students who recently retired and is eager to pass on his knowledge, he explained.
Under the roof of an open-air stage, dozens of classical dancers divided into groups according to skill levels were practicing the age-old hand and leg movements under the guidance of their teachers.
A few buildings away, cello and piano music could be heard from rehearsal rooms. Students make sure they don’t miss classes and their allocated practice times as Western classical music teachers and instruments are in short supply, said 16-year-old music student Khuon Sethipanha.
“We have 1,156 students, 464 of them young women, studying in the five fields of arts: music, theater, dance, plastic arts and circus arts,” said school Deputy Director Sieng Vieng. And each course comes with its own list of necessities, he said. For instance, musical theater yike requires different costumes than Bassac opera, she said.
“One of the most important things we would like to accomplish is the construction of more dormitories and providing full board by giving accommodation and food allowances to poor students while they study here,” Ms Vieng said.
One new feature on campus is the dormitories set up two years ago so that talented youngsters from the countryside can study at the school even if they come from poor families.
Students were selected through exams in the provinces, said Yin Yan, a Bassac theater and poetry teacher who is deputy director of education and also in charge of dormitories.
“The first year, we had around 90 students and now it has increased to 179 students, including 58 girls,” he said. “But the dormitories are now full and, as our means are limited, we decided to stop recruiting at this point.”
Each room is structured like a small community with a student room leader and deputy leaders, with each student assigned his own space to sleep and keep his belongings.
Thanks to the dormitories, 15-year-old Chhoeurn Veasna was able to start studying traditional music at the school six months ago. With only his farmer mother to support the family, he said, “I never expected to get the chance to study here.”
From Siem Reap province’s Banteay Srey district, he had heard about the dormitories from the NGO Farmer Children Association where he had been studying music. “When I grow up, I want to be a professor to share my knowledge with other students,” he said.
The school does not have the funds to feed the students, and since they tend to come from poor families, they have a hard time feeding themselves, Mr Yan said.
As Sim Pheara, a 20-year-old student of modern spoken theater niyeay, explains, getting food is no small task. “Because I’m from a poor family, my parents sometimes cannot come here to bring me food. So at times, un-milled rice and other types of food have been sent here through people from my district who know me and my parents,” he said.
“We are looking for contributions or organizations interested in funding the arts,” Mr Yan said. “I estimate that it costs between 6,000 and 10,000 riel [$1.50 and $2.50] per student for daily food allowance.”
“Frankly in my opinion, children from poor families from the provinces and the outskirt of Phnom Penh have a strong commitment to studying here while kids from middle-class or rich families in Phnom Penh only pay little attention to their studies, spend just a short time at school and then drop out,” he said. This is why the school is determined to help those talented students from poor families, he added.
Handed over a bare field, the school authorities have turned pioneers, determined as they are to turn this site into an actual arts school.
A music teacher and pianist by trade, Sok Thol is now in charge of administration and one of his main concerns is to deal with garbage on campus in the absence of a collection service.
The school has resorted to burning rubbish. “We know the smoke definitely pollutes the air and environment but we’ve got no choice,” he said. “We are looking for assistance and donation for the possible construction of waste-elimination equipment and a proper non-polluting facility.”
The school authorities are also looking for funding to landscape the grounds, which would involve finding a way to curb flooding.
At times, teachers and students tend to feel abandoned on their remote campus, feeling that RUFA gets all the attention due to its central location and rather romantic setting.
Nevertheless they have rallied and improvements made show that they are determined to make something out of this school.
When fine arts students were moved from RUFA to this campus, “I felt so sorry for myself…it felt so isolated and far from downtown Phnom Penh,” said Say Sovan, a 17-year-old student in traditional painting.
Because of the distance and flooding on site, he said, “Some students missed class and others only came occasionally.”
“But now some things have improved,” he said. “The number of students in all fields, including painting and sculpture… are increasing.”
“It’s not deteriorating anymore,” Mr Sovan said.