During the Khmer Rouge’s devastating rule in the 1970s, more than 2 million Cambodian people were killed. Chiefly targeted — among other groups — were the country’s artists, musicians, dancers, and filmmakers. An estimated 90 percent of artists were executed, while many others fled to Thailand, Australia, France, Japan, and other countries providing refuge. The result was not only a tragic and enormous loss of life, but a deep and gaping wound in the country’s cultural heritage — and artistic future.
More than 30 years ago, the country began a revival of Khmer art and culture — a difficult task with so many of its artists lost in the genocide. It started slowly, with the reopening of the Phare Ponleu Selpak arts centre, followed by refugees’ painful return to their country, and the birth of a new generation of daring, determined artists. Today, the Cambodian art scene is thriving.
Concentrated in Cambodia’s three largest cities, a wide range of galleries abound — each with exceptionally unique artists, genres, exhibits, and perspectives. And each is worth exploring for a striking visual and tactile journey through Cambodia’s difficult past and exciting future.
For hundreds of years, Battambang was the hub of Cambodian arts and culture, before it was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. And it’s making its mark once again, providing an outlet for a new generation of young artists. Decidedly off the beaten path (yet Cambodia’s second largest city), Battambang is a peaceful town that’s escaped tourism and mass development. It’s also at the cutting edge of Cambodia’s new art scene, boasting more artists per capital than any other city in Cambodia. Described by artists as having an open, creative, and collaborative community, Battambang is an ideal place to experiment and push boundaries, and as such is shaping an artistic revival with new galleries opening seemingly every week.
Anchored by the visual arts centre Phare Ponleu Selpak, the Battambang arts scene benefits from the fact that the school’s graduates tend to open their own contemporary art galleries in town. One such gallery is Romchiek 5, a joint workshop and studio located in the backstreets of Battambang that was established by four young artists (with the help of a French donor), who were forced to work in Thailand during their childhood. Discovered and sheltered by an NGO that led them on a path to the visual arts, these artists now convey the struggles and resilience of the Khmer people through contemporary art.
The Sangker Art Space and Gallery nurtures and promotes celebrated artists while providing support and space for newcomers to showcase their work, as they continuously display a new crop of contemporary Cambodian artists. Make Maek, run by local painter Mao Soviet, displays many of this premier artist’s stunning works, mixed with rotating exhibits of paintings and photographs of other top talents in Battambang.
While the main attraction in Siem Reap is — and always will be — Angkor Wat and the neighbouring temples, the art scene is also vibrant and diverse and worth exploring in its own right. The city’s artistic makeup is a blend of old and new, with many artisans focusing on preserving traditional methods, while up-and-coming artists excel with a contemporary approach.
This diversity is beautifully displayed at Theam’s House, the home/atelier of Cambodian artist and design Lim Muy Theam, who fled Cambodia to France in 1980. The house holds a unique private collection alongside products created by artisans on-site, as Theam has dedicated his career to finding and preserving traditional artifacts and skills. Theam’s work includes lacquers, painting, and sculpture, which maintain a strong Khmer tradition while conveying Theam’s unique flair. He also commissions local artisans to create artwork while teaching them the techniques of their ancestors, and offers young artists and villagers a job on-site, letting them practice their talents.
Elsewhere in Siem Reap, this theme of helping others through art is prevalent. Colours of Cambodia provides free art education to local children, schools, and the underprivileged communities of Siem Reap. Its gallery features art by the students and teachers, and proceeds go toward assisting students and schools, as well as providing advanced art training to those showing exceptional talent. The Khmer Kids Art Gallery, similarly, provides free art education to Cambodia children in collaboration with local and international NGOs. Angkor Artwork E&T Stocker employs people with disabilities from the community, producing beautiful, handmade lacquer statues and figures, and Artisans d’Angkor is dedicated to both preserving traditional Khmer skills and promoting the development of local individuals.
For a change of pace and perspective, McDermott Gallery (located at the Raffles Grand Hotel D’Angkor and the Foreign Correspondence Club (FCC)) features McDermott’s breathtaking photography of Siem Reap’s temples. World famous for a reason, McDermott’s images are sure to captivate you, and will likely inspire you to try and capture similar shots during your own temple visit.
There is no doubt the capital of Cambodia is rebuilding its artistic spirit through a group of experimental, honest, and brazenly contemporary young artists and galleries.
The Sa Sa Basaac gallery, for instance, is a non-profit, artist-run space that provides a forum for emerging artists to experiment with their practice. Founded by an artists’ collective called Stiev Selapak — the Art Rebels — Sa Sa displays memorable exhibitions of both new and established Cambodian artists.
The Romeet Contemporary Art Space and Java Arts also focus largely on up-and-coming artists, with an aim to nurturing their talents and helping them become prominent figures in the Cambodian art world. META House takes things a step further. The 200-square-metre, three-storey contemporary and multi-media exhibition space has a goal of elevating Cambodian art to the world stage, leveraging its many relationships with artistic organizations and universities around the globe.
Assax Art Gallery presents a terrific clash of old and new, with bold, modern takes on traditional Khmer art by Cambodian artist Assax, and XEM Design: La Galerie is run by well-known Cambodian artist and designer Em Riem, displaying an impressive range of work informed by his first-hand experience with the devastation inflicted by the Khmer Rouge regime. The Institut Français, meanwhile, the first art centre to re-open in Cambodia after decades of cultural stagnancy, is still at the forefront of developing the country’s arts and culture scene.
Through these years of revival, the Khmer art community has a collaborative, supportive, pay-it-forward attitude toward its members. And while artists have tended to draw on the Khmer Rouge period to create raw, heartbreaking works, times are changing. Young artists are starting to focus on optimism and change — they’re looking to the future, while always remembering the past and all those who were lost.
As the art scene in Cambodia flourishes and local artwork generates worldwide attention, you might say that the country is well beyond a stage of cultural revival. Rather, it’s well on its way to becoming a global leader in contemporary art.
G Adventures runs a number of departures in Cambodia encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater to different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours — check out our small group trips here.