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It would be a disservice to imagine Phnom Penh, with its thriving cultural scene, as a city shackled to its past. The brutal Khmer Rouge regime though, has undoubtedly cast a shadow over Cambodia’s cultural heritage.
The arts were outlawed between 1975 and 1979, and sadly the majority of Cambodia’s musicians, filmmakers, dancers and artists were targeted and murdered. In the 1980s, the few artists that had survived were encouraged to return to the capital, sometimes from abroad, to pass on artistic traditions that may have otherwise been lost and forgotten. While the efforts to revive these traditions do continue, emerging artists are looking to the future for inspiration and developing styles of their own.
Modern Phnom Penh has forged its own identity; the abundance of festivals, galleries and concerts across the city are a testament to the resilience of its people. Set aside some time to explore this fascinating history and contribute to its continued resurgence.
Top five art galleries in Phnom Penh
1. Meta House
This three-storey contemporary gallery has been a busy hub for artists and art lovers alike since its conception in 2007. The “media lounge” on the rooftop terrace is particularly popular, with free entry to cutting-edge documentaries and films. German filmmaker Nico Mesterham founded the project, and his links with universities and organisations across the world have given many artists international exposure. Closer to home, exhibitions, workshops and community projects foster burgeoning talent.
2. Java Creative Cafe
Cultural enterprise Java Arts has an enviable position in a striking townhouse overlooking Hun Sen Park. Inside, a light and airy café, chock full of plants, offers a place to discuss the work over a frothy latte. There are regular exhibitions here, alongside the “lab” area; a place for young artists to develop ideas and present work. A hugely successful venture, it’s been a launch pad for many artists who have gone on to become prominent figures in the contemporary art world.
3. Bophana Center
Bophana’s intention to preserve the film-making heritage of Cambodia is quite remarkable. Founders Rithy Pan and Leu Pannaker, both film directors, showcase archival audio-visual footage about Cambodia from across the world. Its goal is to recognise Cambodia’s legacy with documentary, film and photographic footage that may have otherwise remained unseen by the public. Their varied programme spans exhibitions, in-house pilots, film-screenings and performance art. As well as programs to inspire, train and support future generations of filmmakers.
4. X-Em: La Galerie
Renowned Cambodian artist Em Riem is firmly dedicated to the art scene in Phnom Penh. He asserts that after studying in Paris, he could have stayed and made a life for himself there, but that “if every student went to another country and stayed there, Khmer culture would not develop”.
By founding the urbane X-Em: La Galerie in Phnom Penh, he has been able to draw attention to Khmer culture, reference his experiences as a child under the Khmer Rouge, and influence a new wave of Cambodian artists. There are large-scale portraits of Khmer Rouge victims painted on stretched burlap and abstract splashes of colour on canvas. Huge installations take up whole rooms and contrast with realist paintings of animals, handmade rattan seats and ceramic skulls. You would be forgiven for thinking that each were the work of different artists.
5. SA SA BASSAC / SA SA Art Projects
SA SA BASSAC and SA SA Art Projects are two ventures founded the by collective Stiev Selpac, The Art Rebels. Contemporary gallery, SA SA BASSAC curate exhibitions from emerging Cambodian artists, and are dedicated to archiving Cambodian visual culture. A library with books on contemporary art is part of this ongoing project; the Khmer Rouge left a lasting impact on the literacy rate, from which the country is still recovering so this contribution from the gallery is particularly valuable.
Unlike SA SA BASSAC, SA SA Art Projects is a community venture. They work from The White Building, conceived as a clean white modern multi-story complex for urbanites in the 1960s. Its appearance isn’t anything to write home about today – it’s a rather sad, dilapidated landmark of the city. Don’t judge a book by its cover though! This non-profit community art project provides space for developing artists to realise new work.
If you’re interested in Phnom Penh’s blossoming art scene, consider joining the Art and Architecture experience. Discover the remnants of French colonialism and 1960s “mad men” architecture, learn about how the city recovered after the 1970s (when citizens left the city) and meet the founder of Java Creative Cafe to find out how contemporary artists in Cambodia are progressing in spite of their devastating past.