Rebuilding the visual arts community in Cambodia has been slow going.
Just two years ago, 48-year-old Hen Sophal went to Bangkok for an exhibition. When he got there, he was notified that he would not be able to participate because the government had failed to submit the proper paperwork.
Discouraged that he would not be able to join in the exhibition, Hen Sophal returned to Cambodia feeling isolated from the larger art world outside the country.
“No one knows Cambodian artists on the international scale,” he said in a recent interview.
Two years later, however, there is reason to think the situation might be changing.
Java Arts, the NGO started this year as an offshoot of the Java Cafe and Gallery, has recently opened Sala Art, a new gallery in Phnom Penh dedicated to furthering contemporary visual arts as well as promoting Cambodian artists internationally.
Sala’s debut show is not yet three weeks old, and already five artists have been put on the bill for a show in Norway, among them 24-year-old Sa Veasna and veteran artist Prom Vichet, 60.
Over 20 artists have their work in Sala’s debut exhibition—showing now through mid-December. The artists range from recent graduates of the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, like Sa Veasna, to established artists with well-known reputations within Cambodia.
A new work by Vann Nath, one of only a few survivors of Tuol Sleng prison during the Khmer Rouge regime, hangs next to an untitled painting by Sa Veasna depicting a monk from the waist up, holding an umbrella.
Vann Nath’s figurative painting style contrasts with Sa Veasna’s more abstract representation of the monk.
The monk’s image is made up of tiny, distinct sections outlined in white, each one with a picture of a newspaper article or text in various other languages inside. The overall effect is one that resembles a mosaic or collage within which a specific image is hidden.
“This first show is about community,” said gallery owner and Java Arts founder Dana Langlois.
Her aim was to bring everybody together and expose them to the idea of the Sala Art space. For the future, she said, “we hope to work toward facilitating self-expression.”
Sala Art will also be the hub of the Cambodia Arts Network, a group that is seeking to build a community of artists in the country.
Sopheap Pich, CAN president, said that he hopes the master/student dichotomy will be eliminated and the space will become a truly open forum.
Khvay Somnang, 24 and a recent RUFA graduate, said during a recent artists’ roundtable at Sala Art that being in the space has already helped him free up his creativity.
“What I see here looks strange to me at first because what I learn in university is different from what I see here,” he said.
“But I see now I can show what I want to do. Even if my mother doesn’t find it beautiful, I will have support here.”
Overlooking the Tonle Sap from the third floor of a building along Sisowath Quay, the gallery’s high ceiling and sizeable balcony foster a sense of openness and freedom from limitations that is in line with its mission.
After the Sala Art roundtable, a group of recent RUFA graduates studied Vann Nath’s painting, “The second night December 31, 1977,” which documents a scene from the artist’s own life.
In the foreground of the painting, a prisoner sits bound to a chair facing two Khmer Rouge soldiers. There is blood on the ground and the whole image is cast in eerie candlelight.
Serious and respectful, Sa Veasna said that his thoughts turned to today when confronted with Vann Nath’s depiction of the country’s past.
“Life would be better currently if Khmer hadn’t killed Khmer,” he added.
And Kong Vollak, also 24, said he found Vann Nath’s subject matter shocking, but that he was able to learn about Cambodian history through the painting’s images.
In turn, Vann Nath, 60, looked to Sa Veasna’s work hanging directly next to his own. He said he was not sure what Sa Veasna’s intention was in the painting. But monks, Vann Nath said, are the holiest of men.
“When people respect them, wherever they go they bring peace,” he said.
Viewing the work of the younger generation, Vann Nath said, “I feel peaceful.”