Overview: History of Contemporary Art in Cambodia


Written by Kazue Suzuki, Yuto Yabumoto, Supported by Chum Chanveasna, Translated by AURA Art

Lim Sokchanlina "National Road Number 5", 2015, Digital C-Print, 60 x 90 cm

Though everyone knows the modern history of Cambodia's tragedy, a new Kingdom of Cambodia was formed in 1993 as a democracy, following a civil war since 1970, the death of its own citizens by the Pol Pot regime (the destruction of intellectuals and cultural persons by the Khmer Rouge armed forces in 1975-79), the subsequent intervention by the Vietnamese armed forces, and the intervention by the United Nations peacekeeping operations in 1992.

70% of the people are younger than 30 years old and the average age is 25 years old. In the field of art, the traditional art artists who were descended from the Khmer Dynastic Art, which had flourished in the eighth and fifteenth centuries, were almost lost in the Khmer Rouge era. As a contemporary artist, it can be said that the contemporary art scene was created after the 2000s, mainly by the generation who were forced to emigrate abroad with their families in their childhood due to the influence of the civil war and the generation who were born after the civil war.

  • Sopheap Pich
    Art Basel in Hong Kong, 2019

Sopheap Pich, who became well known in Japan as a result of his exhibition at Venice Biennale in 2017, met art at an art school in a refugee camp where he had evacuated with his family. After that, he received an art education in the United States, and is currently active internationally as an artist who produces large-scale contemporary sculptures using wisteria and bamboo. In addition to Sopheap, many of the artists who received art education in immigrant destinations such as the U.S. and France for similar reasons and later became active internationally, as well as the increasing number of opportunities for exhibitions of Cambodian artists to be held in Europe and the U.S., thanks to financial support from diaspora living abroad as well as artists.

In 1917, under French rule, the Royal College of Art was established, with the establishment of an adjacent national museum in 1919. Following its forced closure and subsequent resumption under the Khmer Rouge regime, the university is the only public art educational institution and museum in the country that deals primarily with traditional Khmer architecture and art. There are no other public art museums, and groups and spaces set up by artists and researchers played an important role in nurturing the leaders of contemporary art. In 1998, the Reyum Institute of Art and Culture was established by Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan, which worked to preserve and promote modern art in Cambodia. Although they worked mainly for the research and preservation of Cambodian art, which was lost during the civil war period, they have provided a venue for presentations to artists by encouraging exhibitions of contemporary art at the beginning of its establishment.

  • Sa Sa Art Project

  • "Breath – Graduate Exhibition of Contemporary Art Class"
    Sa Sa Art Project, 2020

In 2007, six artists formed the art collective Stiev Selapak, and in 2010, they launched the Sa Sa Art Projects. At the time of its formation, Vandy Rattana, an exhibitor at Documenta 13, also participated as a creator who produced photographic and visual works dealing with scars and memories of civil war. Later, in 2011, he and curator Erin Gleeson launched Gallery and Alternative Space's Sa Sa Bassac. Sa Sa Bassac served as the Cambodia's first gallery specializing in contemporary art until it closed in 2018, and contributed greatly to the development of the environment by introducing prominent artists in Cambodia and overseas, and by focusing on networking and archiving with overseas institutions.

The Sa Sa Art Projects continues to today, and at the beginning of its activities, it moved its base to the White Building (constructed in 1963 and dismantled in 2017), a modern architectural heritage, and is currently active in the city center of Phnom Penh. With the artist/curator Vuth Lyno playing a central role, it is carrying out projects such as exhibitions, artist-in-residence, and contemporary art education together with Khvay Samnang and Lim Sokchanlina. Its main purpose is to provide opportunities for the younger generation of artists and to archive information. Samnang is a creator who makes full use of photography, video, and performance to produce works with a strong social message. He has also exhibited at Documenta 14, expanding his field of activity.

  • Khvay Samnang "Preah Kunlong"
    2016-2017, Digital C-Print, 80 x 120 cm

  • Lim Sokchanlina "Wrapped Future II"
    2017-2019, Digital C-Print, 80 x 120 cm

Apart from the Sa Sa Art projects, there is no art space specialized in contemporary art, but the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, an archive of audio-visual materials launched by movie director Rithy Panh, provides an opportunity for artists who produce works using photographs and moving images to present their works and gain experience. In addition, exhibitions are sometimes held at galleries of foreign cultural institutions such as Germany and France, as well as at cafes and in-hotel galleries.

Many of Cambodia's contemporary artists have been forced to face the dark parts of their country's history, continuing their practice to fill the scars left by the civil war, the discontinuity caused by the discontinued history, and to prevent the weathering of their memories. At the same time, the younger generation of artists dealing with the problems and personal experiences faced by the rapidly developing Cambodian society are also emerging, and we would like to pay attention to how the next generation, who have strong initiatives to drive the current contemporary art scene, can thicken the layer.