Hotel Staff Let Hidden Talents Soar in ‘T’banh’ Exhibition

When Dutch art teacher Janneke Hoogstraaten was first approached about channeling the talent of employees at a Phnom Penh hotel for an art exhibition, she had some misgivings.

“I don’t do cute-cute,” she said, recalling her initial reaction. “I don’t do crafts.”

Touch Lida, a boutique saleswoman at the Plantation hotel, installs her work 'Trek' on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Touch Lida, a boutique saleswoman at the Plantation hotel, installs her work ‘Trek’ on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The idea of working with amateur artists under a tight deadline—the show would open just three months later—was daunting, as was the prospect of attaining the high quality of exhibitions at the hotel, the Plantation, which regularly features major international and local artists.

But it worked. The program started with two sessions for the entire hotel staff of around 120 employees: an art history overview and some hands-on team projects. Then the real work began: intensive workshops with the 11 artists who signed up for the show.

“I pushed them to their limits. I don’t think I could have asked anyone else for that much,” Ms. Hoogstraaten said. “I don’t think I could have dealt with that much pressure myself.”

The resulting exhibition, “T’banh,” which translates as “Woven,” opened on Wednesday.

The works include paintings—Chan Borey’s bold-color scenery in “The Night of Darkness” and Touch Lida’s “Trek” painting in which geese fly in relief off the frame onto the wall—and three-dimensional installations, like Ouk Chenna’s hemp-and-wire mermaid with 30 meters of “hair” made of traditional scarves.

The show was the brainchild of Frenchman Alexis de Suremain, who heads the hotel’s management group. The hotel has contemporary art on permanent display and hosts a constant stream of short-term exhibitions.

When a staff survey revealed that many employees sought opportunities to create art themselves, Mr. de Suremain made the project happen.

“And if some of them are really talented and this enables them to develop another trade, the better,” he said, pointing to the example of French-Cambodian artist Ing Phousera, better known as Sera, who has worked for more than two decades at a Paris hotel while teaching art and authoring graphic novels.

For the exhibition, Keut Sokchamroeun, a 19-year-old member of the Plantation’s housekeeping staff, wove zip ties into checker-patterned panels and added colorful pieces of synthetic rice sacks for a sculpture entitled “Crisscross.”

“The idea behind my work is to make people aware that weaving is part of our heritage and modern life,” he said. “It’s key to our Khmer identity.”

Sos Fary, 28, who works at the front desk, turned a discarded kitchen grill into a table and used glossy magazine paper to make the rest of a living room, including a carpet, mirror frame and floor lamp.

“My installation is entitled ‘No Small Talk,’ because I want everyone to have a chance to sit down and have a big talk,” he said. “With modern technology…friends go out somewhere but they don’t talk to each other because everyone is busy with their smartphones.”

The exhibition continues through August 17.

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