On a hot Phnom Penh night recently, about 500 of the city’s elite gathered at the French Cultural Center for an exhibition of traditional Cambodian art by a young painter, Chhim Sothy.
In the forecourt, fresh flowers were strung from a wire mesh high above the crowd. Partygoers drank cocktails and fanned themselves around an artfully lighted fiberglass pond filled with live lotus blossoms.
Inside, columns of ice stood steaming in stark, brown-lacquered clay pots, acting partly as art installations, partly as improvised air conditioners.
By the end of Friday night, 25 of the 36 paintings on show had already been sold. By Monday, all but eight were gone. The paintings range in price from $101 to $1,500, reasonable by Western standards but stratospherically expensive in Cambodia.
Chhim Sothy, 33, has already had eight other exhibitions, including one in Singapore, where he won the Asian Art Award last year. But this is the first time his work has been so lucrative.
“People are getting more interested in art,” he said Monday. “Right now they have money and they have peace so they can think of art and culture. They think of [buying] something to decorate their homes.”
For an artist of Chhim Sothy’s caliber, it was important to launch the show with enough glamour for it to be taken seriously by buyers, said Roland Celette, director of cultural activities at the center.
The exhibit is an attempt to get away from the carbon-copy oil paintings of Angkor Wat or idealized rustic scenes that are peddled to tourists in the cluster of art galleries opposite the National Museum, he said.
“You know what they are doing there,” Celette said disapprovingly. “They do 10 paintings a day, and of course, they get only $10 for them.
“It is very important to show the artists that if they do something well, if they work hard, they can get money.”
As a student at the Royal University of Fine Arts in the 1980s and 1990s, Chhim Sothy chose to focus on traditional painting, not because he thought it would make him rich, but because it was safe.
Under the Vietnamese, he learned “art without liberty.” Students were instructed to paint propaganda art for the regime. They were forbidden to learn commercial advertising, which ran contrary to Marxist principles. Students feared that if they painted pictures that were critical of the government, they would “go missing,” Chhim Sothy said.
Even now, artists run into trouble if they do work that is controversial. “You cannot draw Hun Sen with only one eye,” Chhim Sothy said.
“We prefer to do traditional paintings because they are safer. It is good for culture and it is good for personal security.”
There were few Cambodians skilled in traditional art to teach him when he enrolled in university in 1985. Most had fled or been killed during the Pol Pot regime. But in the 1990s, after the Vietnamese left Cambodia, Thai painters came from Surin province to teach at the university.
Chhim Sothy also studied pictures in books and visited temples to look at old-style murals. He learned Pali, the classic literary Cambodian language, from his grandfather, a scholar and monk, and was able to read ancient texts.
His paintings reflect those different experiences. Some are virtuoso works on silk, depicting scenes from the Reamker using the rigid style and symbolism of Hindu art. Some are Buddhist devotional paintings in the style of murals found in pagodas. Others mix traditional styles with elements of contemporary art.
In “Divinities Guarding the Universe,” the three Hindu deities in the foreground are stylized, symmetrical, richly patterned. But the background, representing the ocean, the earth and the universe, is a mix of traditional iconography and chaotic splashes of color.
The nine planets are represented as wheels that spin on their axes in accordance—not with ancient cosmology—but modern astrology. God appears as two barely discernible eyes hovering over the action.
The paintings may bewilder younger Cambodians, who have had little exposure to traditional art, Chhim Sothy said. But he hopes the exhibition will help them to learn before it’s too late.
“We show people something that is disappearing,” he said.
(Chhim Sothy’s paintings will be on display at the French Cultural Center at 218 Street 184 until May 19. An audio tape of the artist’s commentary on the paintings in Khmer is available at the entrance for free. Admission is also free.)