News / Asia

New Generation Redefines Cambodian Art

Vann Nath, one of just seven survivors of the Khmer Rouge's S-21 prison in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, explains a painting depicting torture at his exhibition in Phnom Penh, (File Photo)
Vann Nath, one of just seven survivors of the Khmer Rouge's S-21 prison in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, explains a painting depicting torture at his exhibition in Phnom Penh, (File Photo)
Luke Hunt

After almost 14-years of peace, Cambodia has moved from a country engulfed by war to one of the region’s top tourist destination. Conflict has also given way to a fledgling manufacturing industry and a evolving culture reflected in an emerging Cambodian art scene.

Traditional art

Cambodian art was once known for its rigid, two-dimensional copies of Angora Wat and pleasant countryside scenes that pre-dated the country’s 30-year war. Then came depictions of the sheer terror under the Khmer Rouge, which decimated traditional culture and banned most visual art, except for purely political purposes.

In the immediate years after the war the country’s art scene was almost non-existent. Now, artists strive to reflect a rapidly normalizing society.

Nico Mesterharm, the director of the Meta House Art Gallery in Phnom Penh, arrived here from his native Germany when Cambodian art was still defined by commercial painters who mainly depicted traditional motifs.

Emerging trends

Now, he says local artists are fusing local traditions with the modern and borrowing ideas from abroad.

“They see also that there is a thriving art scene in neighboring countries Thailand and Vietnam," said Mesterharm. "So they learn from other countries, from the achievement which have taken place in other countries.”

He says the country’s art scene started to change in 2005, when about 25 Cambodia contemporary artists started a project called Visual Arts Open.

This sparked the move towards contemporary arts and away from painting copies of landscapes or portraits to emphasize interpretation.

Artist Chhim Sothy, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 4, 2012.
Artist Chhim Sothy, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, January 4, 2012.

Chhim Sothy is among these new artists. His paintings fetch up to $3,000 each and have been exhibited across Asia, in Europe and the United States.

He says the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge dominated his early work while religion and, in particular, Buddhism were also major influences. But he now looks at other sources of inspiration.

“For my favorite painting, I like more contemporary art or abstract art like Picasso, William Kooning, Gauguin or van Gough, I like this style," he said. "Now I change a lot, work about the family, about the people around me, sometimes abstract, sometimes thinking about real life. I’m very happy because I develop a lot.”

Modern art

Chhim Sothy uses oil on canvas, many shades of green, blues and a splash of red in his nudes which relate more to urban family life than the erotic. Mother and child are constant themes in his work which also mixes mythical characters of Hindu poems with man as the explorer of life.

It is a long way from the Institute of Culture and Fine Arts where most of the country’s painters are groomed in rudimentary art. It is also a long way from the days when he sold pictures to tourists for a few dollars.

“For some time I mix together, combine together with classical and modern art for new art," said Chhim. "Now my artwork is so expensive because it’s a new creation, it’s my concept.”

The resurgence and fusion of local classical art with outside contemporary influences is changing the cultural landscape. Film, dance and music have also a witnessed re-awakening.

Local tendencies

But Mesterharm says there are still nagging problems concerning local art, in particular, there is a tendency to only depict what is considered beautiful. Artists remain reluctant to focus on social issues in a country where poverty and corruption are prevalent.

“Most of the art is quite colorful people try to work with different materials," said Mesterharm. "They work in the fields of sculpture, painting and photography. They also try to do something, which is Cambodian. They try to find their own identity. Only if they do so they will also find a market because this is what this scene still lacks is a local market and an international market.”

While the Cambodian art scene searches for broader recognition, its supporters say local artists have already come a long way, considering how they are working to overcome 30 years of war and the Khmer Rouge, who effectively annihilated Cambodian art and culture for decades.

You May Like

Russia-Ukraine Crisis Could Trigger Cyber War

As tensions between Kyiv and Moscow escalate, so too has frequency of online attacks targeting government, news and financial sites More

Egyptian Court Jails 23 Pro-Morsi Supporters

Meanwhile, Egyptian officials say gunmen have killed two members of the country's security forces More

Pakistani Journalists Protest Shooting of Colleague

Hamid Mir, a host for private television channel Geo, was wounded after being shot three times Saturday, but is expected to survive More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politicsi
Michael Eckels
April 19, 2014
There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.

Video Ukraine, Russia, United in Faith, Divided in Politics

There is a strong historical religious connection between Russia and Ukraine. But what role is religion playing in the current conflict? In the run-up to Easter, Michael Eckels in Moscow reports for VOA.

Video Face of American Farmer is Changing

The average American farmer is now 58 years old, and farmers 65 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. It’s a troubling trend signaling big changes ahead for American agriculture as aging farmers retire. Reporter Mike Osborne says a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau is suggesting what some of those changes might look like... and why they might not be so troubling.

Video Donetsk Governor: Ukraine Military Assault 'Delicate But Necessary'

Around a dozen state buildings in eastern Ukraine remain in the hands of pro-Russian protesters who are demanding a referendum on self-rule. The governor of the whole Donetsk region is among those forced out by the protesters. He spoke to VOA's Henry Ridgwell from his temporary new office in Donetsk city.

Video Drones May Soon Send Data From High Seas

Drones are usually associated with unmanned flying vehicles, but autonomous watercraft are also becoming useful tools for jobs ranging from scientific exploration to law enforcement to searching for a missing airliner in the Indian Ocean. VOA’s George Putic reports on sea-faring drones.

Video New Earth-Size Planet Found

Not too big, not too small. Not too hot, not too cold. A newly discovered planet looks just right for life as we know it, according to an international group of astronomers. VOA’s Steve Baragona has more.

Video Copts in Diaspora Worry About Future in Egypt

Around 10 percent of Egypt’s population belong to the Coptic faith, making them the largest Christian minority in the Middle East. But they have become targets of violence since the revolution three years ago. With elections scheduled for May and the struggle between the Egyptian military and Islamists continuing, many Copts abroad are deeply worried about the future of their ancient church. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky visited a Coptic church outside Washington DC.

Video Critics Say Venezuelan Protests Test Limits of Military's Support

During the two months of deadly anti-government protests that have rocked the oil-rich nation of Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has accused the opposition of trying to initiate a coup. Though a small number of military officers have been arrested for allegedly plotting against the government, VOA’s Brian Padden reports the leadership of the armed forces continues to support the president, at least for now.

Video More Millenials Unplug to Embrace Board Games

A big new trend in the U.S. toy industry has more consumers switching off their high-tech gadgets to play with classic toys, like board games. This is especially true among the so-called millenial generation - those born in the 1980's and 90's. Elizabeth Lee has more from an unusual café in Los Angeles, where the new trend is popular and business is booming.

Video Google Buys Drone Company

In its latest purchase of high-tech companies, Google has acquired a manufacturer of solar-powered drones that can stay in the air almost indefinitely, relaying broadband Internet connection to remote areas. It is seen as yet another step in the U.S. based Web giant’s bid to bring Internet to the whole world. VOA’s George Putic reports.