In the coming year, Cambodia will celebrate its 50th anniversary of independence. Five decades of political conflicts, war and turmoil that ended with a return to stability three years ago, when the last of the Khmer Rouge’s leaders surrendered.
Still, as 21 Cambodian artists will show in the exhibition “Visions of the Future,” opening on New Year’s Eve at the gallery of Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture, peace has come with scars. Old war wounds or new diseases, they make for a troubled future reflected in these artists’ work.
Not that their images are depressing. The artists did not resort to sensational or heart-wrenching scenes to convey messages. The picture of Cambodia that emerges from the exhibition expresses a reality that anyone living here and traveling the country has faced countless times.
Through techniques ranging from oil and tempera, to lacquer and mixed media, these professional artists present a sobering vision, rather than a somber one, tinged with hope.
In many cases, the reflection goes beyond Cambodia either in the artwork or in the text that accompanies it. For example, in Sa Piseth’s installation, a hand is pulling a black cloth down a window, which opens on a space filled with light. The five fingers of the hand signifies people from the five continents beginning “to pull at the black cloth, which stands for oppression and misery” in order to acquire freedom, he said in the text.
Chan Lay Heng painted in minute dots of pale blues, greens and ivory a man covering his eyes with his hand as a scale of justice hovers in front of him. He called the work “Don’t wake those who aren’t sleeping,” explaining that some people refuse to hear, see or speak. Eventually, they “become like vegetables, not knowing right from wrong, or white from black. They take ignorance to be intelligence,” Chan Lay Heng said in the text.
In “Opposites,” Chan Vitharin painted the shadow of a person walking to the north on a green background while his red footprints are turned to the south. “Why isn’t the truth told in order to analyze it clearly, and find a way to join together and go forward in search of growth? Or is the goal to move backward,” he wrote in the text on the artwork.
Hen Sophal depicted a well-dressed government official, drinking alcohol and smoking, with a calendar photo of a nude woman on the wall. Corruption is a well-known problem in Cambodia, he said. “It is destroying the very fabric of our country.”
Svay Ken talked of “Greed” in bold red and black, showing people hoarding money just to waste it at dance clubs and beer gardens.
A number of paintings speak of the importance of the environment-from Prom Vichet’s mother and child monkeys sitting on a tree stump in a chopped-down forest to Phy Chan Than’s peaceful abstract as a reminder that life needs nature to be beautiful; and Suos Sodavy’s blue wooden board symbolizing a safe haven for animals big and small.
The past, which still resonates, led to Chhim Sothy’s to create “Please let there be Peace,” a gold and copper tempera on canvas of a woman holding a dove; and to Vann Nath’s “Prayer” of a young farmer praying for flowers to bloom in his children’s future, instead of the droughts, floods and wars he has known.
Khun Sovanrith expressed a similar idea in two paintings-one in which children embrace the world under the eternal smile of Bayon-style faces, and the other with the same image covered by a dark blue, black and gray coat of paint, to express the fear of older people about a future that young ones see as bright.
While Duong Saree’s apsara dances on a mythical creature that signifies death and rebirth-painted in a traditional style that may disappear, she said-Say Saret puts his apsara in the middle of industrial development, with a warning that progress must involve traditions and culture.
Finally, Long Sophea painted in “Mystery” a conch shell with Khmer design on silk to express how children must discover values as they learn to make choices.
Most of the 44 paintings in Visions of the Future were created for the exhibition, said Ingrid Muan, co-director of the institute. Reyum had invited these 21 professionals to choose a theme for an exhibition, she said. “They picked the future.”
Muan hopes the show will inspire other artists to produce work on topics they care about, besides teaching or producing on commission, she said.
The opening of the exhibition will take place on Tuesday, Dec 31, from 5 pm to 8 pm at the Reyum institute gallery, 47 Street 178 in Phnom Penh.
Sponsored by The Albert Kunstadter Family Foundation and the Kasumisou Foundation, the exhibition Visions of the Future will be held through February.