Young Visionaries Cast a Light on Cambodian Art Scene

With its moody lighting, spare layout and otherworldly collection, the “Art of Lamps” exhibition at the French Cultural Center could be confused with any hip Western modern art show. But a closer look reveals materials and influences that are distinctly Cambodian.

Kong Rotha’s enigmatic “soft lamps” draped over chairs are made of bulbs wrapped in kramas. Sao Samphear refashions common soup spoons into table lamps, evoking the grace of an everyday object. Lay Chhoun’s lampshades are miniature, souvenir Cambodian fishing nets. And Heng Pisey creates a spooky forest of tall bamboo poles that throw off unique light patterns.

The exhibition is the product of a three-month workshop sponsored by the French Cultural Center and the Universite Royale de Beaux des Beaux-Arts, part of a series of workshops taught by visiting foreign teachers since 1999.

The workshop’s seven students decided to employ materials that could be found in Cambodia’s streets and gardens, said their teacher, Alexandre Moronnoz.

“Some of the Cambodians com­ing to the show are astonished because things like coco­nuts, which you throw away on the street, can be made into art objects,” Moronnoz said. “The works are also carefully finished, something you don’t always find at the markets.”

The lamps make a special impression when viewed collectively in rooms the students have dubbed “the bamboo forest” or “the coconut room.”

Making lamps can also be­come a lucrative side profession for the students. All the lamps at the show are for sale. Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara has bought nine of them, exhibit organizers said.

This exhibition’s standout artist has been 21-year-old Nam Keang, who made a splash with an at­mos­­pheric room of works in another exhibition in September, said center deputy director Rolonde Celette.

Celette said he recognized a budding abstract artist in a country still dominated by traditional realist art forms. “Of course it’s important to keep tradition alive, but young students everywhere have the right to pursue new ideas,” Celette said.

An interior design student, Nam Keang said he strove to make the most of his simple materials, deriving several kinds of light fixtures from a single piece of bamboo or aluminum. Several of his lamps are painted with ancient Khmer lettering from the Angkor period, ar­ranged for style, not meaning.

Among the most abstract of Nam Keang’s exhibition works are ordinary night-lights painted with vibrant splashes of color that seem to evoke sea life.

“I like abstraction,” Nam Keang said. “With realism, a photo is better. I want people to know the meaning of color, the depth of feeling in color. With abstraction, a pattern can have different meanings for different spectators.”

The exhibition ends Tuesday.


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