Fourteen artists from diverse backgrounds and art forms have come together for the first time to do a collaborative exhibition called Memory that celebrated its opening night on April 5 and will run through April 29, 2022, at the Bophana Centre.
According to exhibition organiser Sou Kimsan, his motive for putting together such a large group show was to promote, glorify and develop the nation’s arts and culture by connecting artists with each other so that they can share knowledge and build friendships because there is strength in unity.
The 14 artists with works in the exhibition include painters working with both oil and watercolours, sculptors, print makers and even installation artists.
“We chose memory as the theme for our first exhibition because the works on display all draw on the memories and experiences of each individual artist’s learning process and experiences with their art and we hope it’s a theme that allows us to explore and exchange experiences between the artists and the public,” Kimsan tells The Post.
Kimsan says that over the centuries, Cambodia has gone through many eras – from prehistoric times to the beginning of recorded history around the first century AD to the prosperous Angkor Empire, and as the wheel of history continued to spin there was a gradual decline over the centuries until the darkness of Pol Pot’s regime brought the nation to its lowest point.
He continues that after the war was over, Cambodia struggled to rebuild its economy, infrastructure and international relations but it succeeded in many ways. Today, the people enjoy stability and things are improving but, he says, only by experiencing both the richness and bitterness of history together can the next generation learn what they should or should not do while building the country together.
The arts have always played an important role in Cambodian civilisation and in people’s lives as seen by the monumental works of the ancestors that still stand today, he points out, drawing on the knowledge he gained while studying at the Royal University of Fine Arts, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in oil painting.
“After the end of decades of civil war all sectors of society gradually recovered, but for a long time the fine arts have struggled to move forward. As artists and art lovers, we want to do whatever we can to help develop the arts here,” Kimsan, 30, tells The Post.
Kimsan’s contribution to the exhibition is an oil painting entitled The Spirit of Living Stone, which depicts temple statues. The inspiration for the work came when he visited Angkor Wat and experienced the amazing architecture there.
At the same time, he was also saddened that so much of Cambodia’s cultural heritage in terms of art had been taken away by the French during the colonial period or looted and sold even in recent years. Seeing ancient pedestals that once raised up great works of art now reduced to just a pair of feet where the thieves broke off the statue to cart away fills him with bitterness, he says.
“Each sculpture has its own soul because our ancestors made them that way. You can see it on their faces – these are immortal beings and every piece of them is sacred and we must work to do whatever we can to restore them to their homes,” he said.
Morn Phyra and Im seila, two of the exhibition’s 14 artists, also shared what the theme of the show meant to them and how it related to the art they contributed.
Behind the Black Curtain is the title of Phyra’s piece, which is a drawing of a woman dancing in traditional clothing with a sad look on her face while an instructor stands nearby teaching her, but resting in the background of that scene is a pile of skulls.
Phyra, 30, and from Takeo province, says that it’s a work of art that is mainly about Cambodia’s darkest era under Pol Pot, when the Khmer Rouge attempted to destroy all of Cambodian culture and reset history to “Year Zero”.
“I strongly feel that the Khmer Rouge regime totally disrupted the arts in Cambodia and any time you see the art within a culture declining you can expect that few things there will manage to rise up because art is at the core of the development of any country.
“Lose the culture and the country vanishes. Land without culture – that’s just a big pile of dirt,” Phyra says.
Phyra graduated from the Royal University of Fine Arts in 2016 and is now pursuing a master’s degree at the Royal Academy of Cambodia in Fine Arts says he was thrilled to have a chance to work with so many other artists for the exhibition.
“This exhibition is really good because we’re able to gather so many artists together, which is creating a memory as well as sharing our memories of experiences related to the arts. Shows like this are important for the wider promotion of the arts in the nation as a whole and on the international stage,” he says.
Im Seila, another of the exhibition’s artists, has two paintings on display. One is titled Childhood Memory and the other Blurry Dream.
Childhood Memory draws on his own past as a child living in the countryside and the games they would play during Khmer New Year and Pchum Ben. He notes with sadness that many of these traditional games seem to be disappearing because of the obsessive use of technology by young people.
Blurry Dream is about his mother, Seila, and how circumstances, history and sexism thwarted many of her goals in life.
“My mom’s dream was always to study but she was born during a time when her parents would not allow her to do so – whether it was an academic class or even a dance class. And when the Khmer Rouge showed up that further destroyed any opportunities to study and it pushed her dreams further and further away.
“At the end of her life in her old age she could only look back knowing that she never achieved her dream and I know there are countless women from my mother’s generation who had the same experiences and I wanted to honour them with this piece and make a statement that we need to make sure their daughters don’t suffer the same fate,” says Seila, who works as an art therapist for children at a hospital in addition to his art career.
Kimsan adds that he’s happy to have had the opportunity to gather all of these artists together and give some younger artists an opportunity to express themselves to encourage them to keep doing what they love.
“I hope this will be a constant reminder for all of us that we can exchange ideas and perspectives as artists in order to help things change for the better. That would truly be a memorable achievement,” he says.
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