Democratic principles can be difficult to put into paintings. Yet this is the challenge the US Embassy gave the Reyum Kasumisou Art School in October.
The embassy called for the school to decorate the temporary walls at the construction site of its future location across from Wat Phnom. Since these walls may remain until the new embassy building is ready to open in 2006, embassy officials decided to make them useful.
“We thought this would be a wonderful public space for [Cambodians] to express their views on what democracy means to them,” said David Gainer, assistant public affairs officer for the US Embassy.
Three months ago, the 23 students in the art school’s advanced class were assigned to design 10 paintings illustrating democracy. “At first, it was difficult to come up with the concepts and turn them into sketches,” said Lim Van Chan, the school director.
Students pored over books on democracy to pinpoint major principles. But at the end of the first week, they only had a couple of ideas on how to translate those principles into images, said Lim Van Chan. The following week, they discussed concepts with the assistance of their teachers, and ended up with 13 themes.
After two more weeks of drafting and design, they had these themes painted on small boards, each done in a different style, ready for embassy officials to review and choose from. “We felt the paintings were very beautiful and creative—those students are very talented,” said Gainer.
The students started work on the 10 selected panels on Dec 15, with the goal of completing them within a month. They paint six days a week under Lim Van Chan’s supervision.
Each panel is designed as a distinct work of art, individually complete in style and message.
The painting on freedom of speech is full of movements and sharp colors, with mouths talking and ears listening, plus a newspaper in one corner and a pen in the middle.
The panel depicting freedom of religion emanates serenity with its tones and clear lines. It shows a statue of Buddha, a cross representing Christianity, a small altar for animism and a man prostrated toward Mecca—all painted side by side to express people’s right to practice their chosen religion.
The panel on freedom of assembly is busy with people meeting and reaching out to one another, painted as oval shapes with arms stretched toward the next person.
The democratic right to select one’s political leaders through voting is shown in sober colors and straight shapes, with one hand putting a check mark on a ballot and another hand putting it in a ballot-box while people watch.
To express the concept of equal rights, the students painted a poor woman smiling and getting a drink from a man in a business suit, surrounded by well-dressed people in an art gallery.
For the peace and liberty panel, a young woman in soft tones of green and blue, her hair and krama floating in the wind, extends her arms, freeing a dove. The panel on freedom to protect one’s culture and traditions is dominated by the silhouette of Angkor Wat floating in clouds.
The most difficult picture to conceive was the one about free market economy, said Lim Van Chan. In the end, students decided to use a barcode as backdrop, he said. Barcodes—a series of black stripes and numbers—appear on all manufactured products that are imported and exported in a free market economy.
The most colorful panel will be the one on children’s freedom to play and study, said Lim Van Chan. It will include bright flowers and animals to show the joy of children at play, he said. Finally, the 10th panel will show stylized workers building the word democracy in Khmer.
The embassy plans to put up a sign with English and Khmer text explaining the project, Gainer said.
The Reyum School offers free art training to street children and to children of poor families. About 120 students currently attend the school, Lim Van Chan said.