Five Local Artists Look Back on a Time of Transition in Cambodia

The five-artist exhibition “Transition,” which opened last night at Meta House, revisits a pivotal episode in Cambodia’s history: the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement in October 1991, which led to the U.N. sending its staff and volunteers to administer the country and organize the 1993 national elections.

It was an exciting time for the country, recalls painter Chhim Sothy, who was a student at the Royal University of Fine Arts when the U.N. Transitional Authority     in Cambodia (Untac) arrived.

'Repairing' by Ouk Socheathy (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
‘Repairing’ by Ouk Socheathy (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Having survived the Khmer Rouge regime only to spend his teenage years in a country still embroiled in war, Mr. Sothy suddenly had the freedom to select the country’s leaders at the polls and truly express himself through his art.

Mr. Sothy has conveyed this in the semi-abstract painting “May Peace Prevail,” which shows two doves taking flight amidst flowers, a scene outlined in gentle, muted tones in acrylic paint and watercolor.

The idea of an exhibition on the country’s transition out of war came from Tith Veasna, a 30-year-old designer who teaches at the Royal University of Fine Arts and was a child at the time. Her mother worked in Untac’s civilian police office, and Ms. Veasna still recalls the excitement of meeting Cambodians and foreigners there.

As the opposition CNRP led demonstrations following last year’s national elections, Ms. Veasna started thinking of the changes that have occurred in the country—going from a state ruled by the Khmer Rouge, in which any semblance of disapproval of the regime was a death sentence, to a country in which people could march in the capital calling for the prime minister to step down.

She then asked four fellow artists to join in, three arts professors along with Mr. Sothy, who is deputy director of the department of fine arts and handicraft at the Ministry of Culture.

Among them is Ouk Socheathy, a pottery professor at the Secondary School of Fine Arts, who remembers how excited he was when the first people wearing the U.N.’s distinctive blue caps appeared in the country.

Born three days before the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in April 1975, Mr. Socheaty was a teenager when the 1993 national election was held. Still, he volunteered to help organize the vote, working alongside people from countries he had never heard of to make sure all went according to plan.

In the exhibition, one of his oil paintings, entitled “Formed,” shows human silhouettes amidst colorful metal frames, still being assembled into a finished structure. As peace returned in the early 1990s, he said, “It was important to work together to rebuild the country.”

The exhibition, which also includes works by Chan Vitharin and Suos Sodavy, runs for two weeks.

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