In Siem Reap, Artist Embraces Khmer Tradition in Modernity

Artist Phok Sopheap has a knack for reinterpreting Cambodia’s centuries-old images into paintings that are both contemporary and respectful of tradition.

In his recent work “Apparition of Conceivable and Inconceivable Truths,” a black silhouette of the head of the Buddha is surrounded by a cloud of colors emanating from a green lotus pod and enclosed by giant green leaves. The leaves also form the outline of a half-silhouette of the Buddha along the left side of the painting.

Phok Sopheap's painting 'Halfway into a World of Non-Secular Enlightenments' (Loven Ramos)
Phok Sopheap’s painting ‘Halfway into a World of Non-Secular Enlightenments’ (Loven Ramos)

The work is a homage to the Buddha for today’s world.

The painting is part of Mr. Sopheap’s exhibition “The Beauty of Lotus Flowers,” which opens Friday at the 1961 Coworking and Art Space in Siem Reap City.

In another painting, Mr. Sopheap has created his own version of New York City’s Statue of Liberty, with a face reminiscent of the Buddha and doves flying out of its torch. A grouping of structures on the statue’s crown were inspired by Angkor Wat, the Taj Mahal and a museum in the U.S.—possibly New York’s Metropolitan Museum—the 30-year-old artist said.

“This artwork represents friendship in the world—no country can remain isolated,” he said. “Love, life and countries are meant for linkage, not isolation.”

A native of Battambang City, Mr. Sopheap is a self-taught artist who started painting around 2011 after seeing the work of Cambodian artists such as Mao Soviet and Khao Touch in Battambang. His paintings have since been exhibited several times in the country.

His latest series marks the first solo show held at 1961 Coworking and Art Space since the building, formerly the Hotel and Gallery 1961, was converted into a facility for artists, said Loven Ramos, the founder of the facility, which reopened in July.

The common workroom at the 1961 Coworking and Art Space in Siem Reap City (Li Minyao)

The hotel rooms were converted into a common working space and individual studios for artists. “We saw that there’s a big need for artists, designers, people in the creative industry here to actually have a space to develop their work,” Mr. Ramos said.

The renovation was a continuation of what was already being done with the property, as the hotel had opened in 2011 to accommodate visiting artists, said Mr. Ramos, who moved from his native Philippines to Cambodia 10 years ago. The 1961 Coworking and Art Space is mainly used by Cambodian artists along with the occasional foreigner, he said.

The conversion comes at a time when the art market in Siem Reap, which had fallen sharply due to the global financial crisis of the late 2000s, is once again showing promise.

“The buyers who come in here tend to be much more young, and tend to be Asian,” Mr. Ramos said. “The percentage of Chinese buyers…has been phenomenal: They’re in their 20s to 40s, they have new money but understand art and they invest in it.

“I never expected that trend to happen,” he added. “But it’s very exciting because they…tend to support art that’s much more contemporary, that much more speaks of the modern Cambodia.”

Mr. Sopheap’s exhibition, which opens at 7 p.m. Friday, runs through October 20.,

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