After decades as a catalyst for the Kingdom’s vibrant arts sector, Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), founded by genocide survivor and musician Arn Chorn-Pond, will host the 10-day Arts4Peace Festival in Phnom Penh to celebrate the Kingdom’s arts and culture since the fall of Khmer Rouge.
The festival, which runs from November 14-24, marks the 20th anniversary of CLA and the 40th anniversary of the fall of Khmer Rouge.
The high-profile festival will bring local and international attention to the impact of the arts in Cambodia by presenting the work of artists from three generations who have helped to preserve, revive and develop the sector – including CLA founder Chorn-Pond.
“When we started CLA, my secret wish was for every child in Cambodia to carry a musical instrument, to dance, sing and be happy together, not to carry guns like I did. I think we can do that!” said Chorn-Pond.
The Khmer Rouge sent him to a child labour camp where minors were forced to work in the fields. Under the instruction of a master artist, Chorn-Pond, who was born into a family of artists, survived by playing propaganda music.
He later escaped and found shelter at a refugee camp in Thailand before moving to the US, where he was adopted in 1980 and began a new chapter of his life.
Having been educated and involved in community projects in the US, Chorn-Pond returned to his motherland in the 1990s desperate to see the surviving masters of the arts. In 1998, along with a group of dedicated people from the US, he created the Cambodian Masters Performers Programme, which later grew into CLA.
“We started 20 years ago as a very small organisation, and now we’re pretty big – I think other post-conflict nations can use us as an example. We would love to share our experience with other people around the world,” Chorn-Pond said.
CLA has extended its activities beyond Cambodia and sent guest lecturers to Abu Dhabi, Austria, Canada, Colombia, Germany, Japan, Korea, Malta, Taiwan and several Southeast Asian countries.
Back home, CLA now runs six large projects that work to strengthen living heritage, promote the education of culture and the arts, create sustainable jobs for artists and technicians, take traditional music to villages nationwide, provide training and financial assistance and support research and dialogue into the role of arts in society.
One of the projects, “Experience CLA”, gives audiences an opportunity to experience quality, authentic Cambodian performing arts and has an annual turnover of more than $500,000.
CLA supports artists, troupes, teachers and communities to sustain their work in the arts and to earn a living.
Keat Sokim, communications and outreach coordinator of CLA’s “Arts Development” programme, works to provide training in both artistic and non-artistic skills.
“The programme also gives financial, administrative and logistical support and creates opportunities for collaboration and exchange. We commission new work and provide grants for projects,” he said.
The programme has helped brighten the future of many artists – among them former scholarship student Chamroeun Sophea, who is now a traditional and contemporary dancer and choreographer.
She is currently busy getting a contemporary work called K’dey Sromai (Dream) into full production before presenting the spectacle at Arts4Peace.
“It’s an exploration of hopes, dreams and aspirations, told through contemporary dance. Every one of us has our own dream. In this piece, you’ll see the connection between the past and the present – and into the future. What have we dreamed about? How is it going now? What will we do next?” Sophea said.
Her sister, Chamroeun Sopheak, a multi-talented artist who was a finalist in Series 1 of The Voice Cambodia, was chosen as one of the ambassadors of the Arts4Peace Festival.
“I believe it’ll be a time we’ll never forget, with the audience joining together with three generations of artists. The festival will highlight the role of the arts in healing and building peace.
“I expect the audience will gain a greater understanding and give their strong support to Cambodian arts,” Sopheak said.
The 10-day festival is a celebration of Cambodian art – past, present and future. Communications and outreach coordinator Keat Sokim hopes it will attract people of all ages.
“The Arts4Peace Festival will highlight the importance of art and culture to the country and above all draw attention to the people behind the last four decades of artistic and cultural regeneration,” said Sokim, adding that “the festival will bring together old and new performing arts, workshops, interactive dialogue sessions, exhibitions and a dynamic online programme”.
CLA artists and performers will be joined by veterans in their fields as the organisation has been actively searching for talented older artists across the Kingdom.
“Truly, the achievements we’ve made to blossom the arts in Cambodia would not have happened without the love and sacrifice of senior artists.
“They’ve done that from the bottom of their hearts. They help preserve and develop all Cambodian art forms, despite what they went through.
“The Arts4Peace Festival is a way to show gratitude towards their dedication to the arts,” Sokim said.
So Phina, CLA’s Knowledge, Networks & Policy programme manager, has been working on the Hidden Hero project, which has been searching for older artists since April.
“In Cambodia, there are many people who have put blood, sweat and tears into protecting our art and culture.
“Most of them are rarely heard of, so it’s time to do something for them and let the public acknowledge their hard work.
“We hope our support will give them hope and strength to continue their artistic journey despite their golden age.
“And we must do it urgently because some of them are very old. There was a sad case recently when our team went to Pursat province to document the life of an old artist [Mao Sophorn]. He passed away a week after we met him,” she said.
The festival will culminate in a homecoming performance of Bangsokol: A Requiem for Cambodia with renowned film producer Rithy Panh and flute master Him Sophy paying tribute to souls of Cambodian artists.
For those who cannot make it to the festival, CLA is bringing technology to enable anyone to experience the event from afar.
“An online programme, including exhibitions and a ‘virtual festival’, will extend the reach of the festival to people who are unable to physically be present in Phnom Penh, both in Cambodia and overseas, as well as creating a digital legacy from the festival,” said Sokim.
More information can be found on Facebook (@Arts4peaceFestival).