In the last two decades a growing body of critical literature on modern and contemporary art in Cambodia has emerged. Documentation of art from the twentieth century is thin, owing in part to the dispersal and destruction of significant archival materials during the turbulent events of the 1970s. The Pol Pot regime (1975–1979) sought to remake Cambodian society into an extremist version of an agrarian communist society; and, as a result, numerous institutions of modern learning were abandoned, vandalised, or repurposed with catastrophic effects. The devastation of this period forced a protracted period of economic and societal rebuilding following the 1979 Vietnamese invasion and decade-long occupation of the country as a Socialist state, during which time propagandistic archival initiatives were undertaken, such as the conversion of the Tuol Sleng detention centre into a museum of genocide. Processes of institutional and infrastructural reconstruction accelerated with the signing of peace agreements in 1991 and the support of UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) from 1992–1993 to establish democratic electoral procedures. NGO and foreign aid workers made up the majority of a burgeoning expatriate population, and the 1990s witnessed Cambodia’s increasing participation in global markets, with investment largely coming from East Asian countries. These developments have contributed to national and international research on Cambodian art and culture, and to institutional projects, many of which were framed by post-Khmer Rouge documentary, memorial, and museological imperatives. Among these, transnational connections often played an important role in attaining major funding and drawing local audiences, as exemplified by the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture, co-founded by Ly Daravuth and the late Ingrid Muan.
What these developments have meant for art historical writing on the modern and contemporary, and for the general state of art criticism, are that they has been dominated by the English language, and that much of the research and curatorial writing has until recently been largely concerned with the relationship between art and frameworks of memory and trauma. General art historical research has also primarily been situated in the premodern or the contemporary, with scarce research into modernism in the visual arts. The confluence of these factors is in large part a historical effect, beginning in the early twentieth century. The most established national institution for training in the arts is the Royal University of Fine Arts, initially founded by colonial administrator George Groslier in 1918 as the École des Arts Cambodgiens. The pedagogical mission for the school was to train artisans in the preservation of various artistic and craft practices described in colonial rhetoric as at risk of disappearance, thus resonating with similar discourses on the responsibility of the French to restore the ruins of the Angkorean empire. The focus of teaching was thus to orient students towards particular facets of artistic creation and to locate these practices locally and in the past, thereby marginalising forward- or outward-looking vision and experimentation.
Modern artistic techniques (largely painting scenes, objects, and portraits based on direct observation) were more systematically taught in the early post-Independence period under the guidance of Japanese teacher Suzuki, with the support of Prime Minister Sihanouk, who helmed a modern nation-building project with a particular emphasis on artistic industries. The most celebrated areas of postcolonial artistic innovation lay in music, film, and in particular architecture under the leadership of Vann Molyvann, considered by many to be the architect of Cambodia’s modernity, as exemplified by the New Khmer Architecture movement. Independent studies of Cambodian modern art—if chronologically approximated with mid-twentieth century modernisms elsewhere in the region—have been difficult to accomplish, as modernist styles such as abstraction, surrealism, and cubism aren’t apparent from extant documentation. As demonstrated in the Reyum publication Cultures of Independence, modernity in the visual arts has instead until now been largely apprehended as part of cross-disciplinary developments in art and culture.
Limitations are faced in the present, in terms of the provision of training in the fields of art history, theory, and criticism. RUFA was reopened at the high school level in 1980, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, under the initiative of master silversmith Som Samai; and university-level training was re-established in 1989 with five majors: architecture, plastic arts, archaeology, music, and dance. The history of modern and contemporary art has never been consistently taught as an individual curriculum at the school, although such exposure may have differed for students who received scholarships to study in the Soviet-Eastern bloc in the 1980s. Rather, students have had access to fragments of Euro-American modern art as part of technical studies in plastic training, but modern and contemporary Cambodian examples have been precluded from the main curricula. While aspects of Groslier’s pedagogical model can be traced in the present, with emphases on stylistic reproduction and a lack of critical and theoretical training, larger endemic institutional issues in the realms of public education, governmental support, and allocation of resources should also be considered significant factors undermining progress in arts education, among other sectors.
Ingrid Muan’s 2001 PhD dissertation on art and pedagogy in twentieth-century Cambodia has been an invaluable resource for researchers, as it traced the above-mentioned issues to institutional and artistic formation across education and exhibition-making. As co-founder of the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture (1998–2010), Muan facilitated and witnessed the entrance of Cambodia onto the map of the global art world, facilitated by the growth of regional exhibitions seeking geographical breadth as well as curatorial and scholarly interest in art from post-war societies. The interest in uncharted art worlds for inclusion in the growing biennial circuit coincided with an increase in public discussions about retrieving personal Khmer Rouge period memories as part of a larger reconciliation project, in tandem with the long-planned Khmer Rouge Tribunal, which began proceedings in 2007 after almost fifteen years of fraught negotiations. At the same time, the visual arts became an arena in which artists who had lived through the Khmer Rouge period were largely encouraged to produce work as part of healing. This subject matter began to characterise Cambodian artistic identity through a number of internationally funded projects and exhibitions, such as ‘Legacy of Absence’ and ‘Art of Survival’, and the growing collector base of such artists as Svay Ken, Vann Nath, Sopheap Pich, and Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Le. This lent international visibility and legibility to ‘Cambodian art’, following the release of the film The Killing Fields and the controversial 1997 exhibition of Tuol Sleng photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (critiqued in Lindsay French’s essay).
Over the last decade, however, artists in Cambodia have entered expanding routes of global circulation and have benefited from opportunities for international exhibition, exchange, and education. Several artists, such as Sopheap Pich, Leang Seckon, Vandy Rattana, Khvay Samnang, and Anida Yoeu Ali have attained a strong presence internationally for innovative works in sculpture, photography, collage, and performance. Events such as Season of Cambodia, a two month-long series of exhibitions and programs that emphasised the global draw of contemporary art from Cambodia, took place in New York City in 2013. Alongside these developments has been a growing body of research, criticism, and curatorial activity, such as those of artist-led initiatives like Phnom Penh-based Sa Sa Art Projects, whose members have led educational programs targeted at local communities. As a result, new perspectives on the history of modern and contemporary art in, from, and about Cambodia have been steadily gaining ground. Many of these texts are featured throughout the following bibliography.
Colonial Formation of the Cambodian Arts
|Herbelin, Caroline, ‘Deux conceptions de l’histoire de l’art en situation coloniale: George Groslier (1887–1945) et Victor Tardieu (1870–1937)’, Siksacakr: The Journal of Cambodia Research, no. 12–13, 2011, pp. 206–218. [not yet available]|
|Trois Écoles d’Art de l’Indochine, Hanoi: Imprimerie d’Extrême-Orient, 1931. [not yet available]|
|Muan, Ingrid, ‘Selling Space: Socialism and Signage in Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge’, in Eye of the Beholder: Reception, Audience, and Practice of Modern Asian Art, eds. J. Clark, M. Peleggi, and T.K. Sabapathy, Sydney: Wild Peony, 2006. |
|Nelson, Roger, ‘”The Work the Nation Depends On”: Nhek Dim, “Cambodian Modern Artist”’, in Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art, eds. Sarena Abdullah, Yvonne Low, Phoebe Scott, and Stephen Whiteman, Sydney and Singapore: Power Publications and National Gallery Singapore, 2017. [not yet available]|
|Grant, Ross H., and Darryl Collins, Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture, 1953–1970, Bangkok: Key Publications, 2006. [not yet available] |
Art and Testimony
|Y, Chalm, ed., Tribute to Vann Nath, Phnom Penh, Cambodia: Bophana Audio Visual Resource Center, 2013. [not yet available] |
Issues of Representation
|Thompson, Ashley, ‘Emergenc(i)es: the Auto-ethnographic Impulse in Contemporary Cambodian Art’, in Essays on Art in Southeast Asia: Charting Thoughts, eds. Low Sze Wee and Patrick Flores, Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, 2017. [not yet available] |
Curatorial Entry Points (in chronological order)
|Contemporary Art of the Non-Aligned Countries: Unity in Diversity in International Art: Post-Event Catalogue. Jakarta: Balai Pustaka, 1997. [not yet available] |