Exploring past and current styles, rewriting rules and, at times, defying the authorities.
Such was the art world of the 1950s and ’60s in Phnom Penh, which emerges anew in the pages of a book and exhibition titled “Cultures of Independence.”
Released this weekend by the Reyum gallery, the 398-page volume and accompanying exhibition document how the artists of that period created new styles. “An emerging urban elite undertook the task of conceiving, defining and building a ‘modern Khmer culture,’” wrote authors Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan. “Whether consciously or not, most of their work took up questions of how to create forms that would be recognized as both Cambodian and modern.”
In the Modern Painting chapter, Sam Kem Chang says, “We have to change tradition. But don’t eradicate tradition. Tradition should be known and improved.”
Sam Kem Chang was among students of the Sala Rajana (the School of Cambodian Arts) who learned to paint through observation under the direction of a Japanese teacher named Suzuki.
Suzuki’s approach was revolutionary, since most previous training consisted of precisely copying traditional themes over a grid pattern. And yet, Sam Kem Chang says, the artists who created these traditional motifs centuries ago worked from observing people and nature, which is why he says he believes students should analyze the traditional work before switching to modern forms.
“We should draw and study our art first, so it is clear. Later we can create and improve,” he said.
Most chapters in the book have three parts. First, the authors explain how modern styles appeared in each medium. For example, in cinema during the 1950s, the US Information Service trained Cambodians while they shot documentaries in the country, promoted the use of films for education and anti-communist campaigns, and toured the country to show villagers films on the US way of life.
The second part of most chapters includes documents and newspaper articles published at the time. In the Modern Music chapter, there’s a series of “letters to the editor” sent to La Depeche du Cambodge (Cambodian Dispatch) in the 1960s that debated the pros and cons of the Twist, a new dance step that pop singer Chum Kem introduced to the country with his song “The Cambodia Twist.”
The third part features interviews with period artists who talk about their own journeys into art and the creative atmosphere in that era.
Painting supplies were rare and expensive, said Sam Kem Chang. “In my time, we were very poor, and we bought powdered paint and mixed it with fish oil to use for painting,” he said. “We didn’t buy paint tubes.” Students tended to paint small works to save on supplies.
Filmmaker Ly Bun Yim talks about how, as the son of a poor farmer in Kompong Cham province who could not afford a photo enlarger, he built one by studying a camera lens.
“When you photograph with a camera, the lens takes a very big picture and projects it as a small picture onto the film,” he said. So he tried to reverse the process so he could enlarge and print on paper.
“You had to have a strong and even light to make the flash for projecting the negative image onto paper. So I took a toilet bowl made out of shiny porcelain, put the light in it and suspended it over the place to put the film, which was inserted between two camera lenses.”
This produced photos so sharp that a professional photo store already equipped with an enlarger asked to buy his toilet bowl contraption, Ly Bun Yim said.
Architect Vann Molyvann recalls how King Norodom Sihanouk, then head of state, invited him to the palace and told him to set up the Royal University of Fine Arts. He had a car at his disposal, but no specific budget, so he found ways to get teachers already on the government payroll.
“We worked together and all tried very hard,” Vann Molyvann said. “[Creating a university] was a new thing for Cambodians. Before, the French had done it for them.”
Vann Molyvann remembered the difficulties he faced when he began to design the Independence Monument in the late 1950s. King Sihanouk had asked for an Angkorian-inspired monument to commemorate the nation’s independence, and the King wanted it located in line with Wat Phnom on Norodom Boulevard,
When the company hired to dig the foundation started work, “we saw that there was a bridge,” said Vann Molyvann. The company decided to pour the foundations under the bridge. But this created a hollow and the foundation wasn’t strong enough. “We ended up making a shallow foundation with short pillars that were maybe only eight meters deep.”
In theater, some writers and actors introduced lakhaoun niyeay, or speaking theater—a departure from Cambodia’s traditional song and dance forms. The new plays sought to do more than entertain, said Chheng Pon. “The pieces that Hang Thun Hak wrote and directed—he never put his name on them because the political climate was still too sensitive. He was a ‘progressive.’ He criticized society.”
His play Kanya Chareya (The Ethical Girl) “critiqued corruption in society and the culture of bribery,” said Chheng Pon. “So we had trouble. When we performed, a police van waited in front of the entrance of the theater, and the police listened to every word of the play. We were very scared, but we still performed.”
Chheng Pon says that when the police bothered them, “the mother of King Sihanouk, Queen Kossamak, began to protect us. If it hadn’t been for Queen Kossamak, we would all have gone to prison.”
“Cultures of Independence” contains nearly 100 photos and illustrations, with the text in Khmer on the left side of each page and in English on the right. It took a team of researchers two years to gather the material for the book, which was coordinated by Van Sovanny and Preap Chanmara. “Traces of the work produced during the period just before and after independence remain scattered, while only some participants from the time survive,” Ly Daravuth and Muan wrote.
The work was done as a scientific study, not as a piece of nostalgia, said Ly Daravuth. Why concentrate on that era? “It’s important to stress that in the 1950s, we became independent,” he said. “From that point on, we were on our own. We could no longer rely on France, the United States or others for our cultural development.”
Cambodian artists at the time faced issues similar to the ones today’s artists face. They were asking themselves how to build a contemporary Cambodian culture, which elements from Western cultures to use and how to incorporate them, and how to “reimagine” local traditions in the modern world, wrote Ly Daravuth and Muan in the introduction.
Creating truly Cambodian modern styles had to consist of more than sticking traditional motifs on new buildings, said Vann Molyvann. In architecture, “we also thought about the way that Cambodians have traditionally lived. So we built the bathroom and the kitchen outside on the balconies (in apartment buildings), slightly separate from more interior living and sleeping rooms.
“I took the form of the roof of the wat or the Khmer house and I reworked it, revised it, recreated it. I never just took a traditional form and copied it whole.”
The book may inspire today’s artists who also have to choose between or combine new and traditional approaches, wrote Ly Daravuth and Muan.
”Cultures of Independence” covers architecture, Lakhaoun Niyeay or speaking theater, filmmaking, music and painting. The final chapter covers the Royal University of Fine Arts. Ly Daravuth said literature was left out because it was a vast topic worthy of a book of its own.
Reyum, which published the book, is an NGO that researches, publishes material and holds exhibitions on traditional and contemporary artwork. It is funded by the Kasumisou Foundation and the Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation, both based in the US.
This project was also funded by the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands, the Japan Foundation Asia Center and the Rockefeller Foundation.
The book now is sold at the Reyum gallery on Street 178, which will exhibit photos, posters and other visual documents from the book until the end of February.