View of Phnom Penh in 2015. Photo by Dmitry A. Mottl.

Phnom Penh

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Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh was, up until April 1975, known as the “Pearl of Asia.” Under the administration of Sangkum Reastr Niyum—a political organization founded in 1955 by the late Norodom Sihanouk—the capital and country thrived and enjoyed a brief moment of cultural affluence. For many, this was the golden age of Cambodia: an era of innovation and creation for architecture, cinema, music, as well as visual and performing arts. 

The rise of the Khmer Rouge (KR) abruptly ended this growth. The storming and capturing of Phnom Penh by the communist forces of KR in 1975 marked the beginning of “Year Zero,” a period of genocidal massacre and racial purification. Four decades later, after having escaped near-death destruction, the city is slowly regaining its status as a vibrant region. In terms of urbanization and economic advancement, the 1.5-million-populated capital is regarded as one of the fastest developing cities in the world. However, it still has an underdeveloped arts ecosystem compared to neighboring Southeast Asian cities such as Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. This is due to the scarcity of art educational institutions, exhibition and performance venues, public funding, an art market, literary resources, and platforms for public discussion and critical discourse such as arts journals and newspapers. 

This inadequacy does not, however, interfere with the creative impulses of the city—the local arts scene has flourished of late, with several Cambodian artists receiving significant international recognition. For example, in 2013, the Season of Cambodia festival—initiated by Cambodian Living Arts and taking place across New York—elevated Phnom Penh into a site for global art discourse. Featuring more than 120 Cambodian artists of various disciplines, the majority of whom reside in Phnom Penh, the festival offered new perspectives about Cambodia in contrast to the two previously predominant narratives of KR atrocities and the temples at Angkor Wat. These works were presented in various well-known venues, such as New York’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is important to note that until recently, Phnom Penh’s contemporary art scene was guided by expatriate experts and curators, as well as nonprofits that depend on international funding. Since 1991, the year of the Paris Peace Accords, an influx of non-governmental agencies have helped advance Cambodian arts as well as the country itself, politically, economically and culturally. These include Cambodian Living Arts, Amrita Performing Arts, Sa Sa Bassac, Java Creative Café, Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, and the French Institute of Cambodia, all who have played important roles in shaping Phnom Penh’s art scene. The culture of the city, to a large degree, depends on these bodies for financial, technical and moral support.

However, an increasing number of local art scholars, curators and art managers also offer new viewpoints on the country’s history of conflict and trauma, if not exactly counter-narratives. This includes exhibitions, projects and scholarships initiated by and for locals, such as artist-run Sa Sa Art Projects, founded in 2009 by Cambodian artist group Stiev Selapak, which is committed to showcasing experimental art and artist residency programs; Kon Len Khnhom, a multifunctional space that hosts residency programs, as well as providing networking opportunities and audience engagement; and Vetika Brovoat Selapak: Art History Forum, a platform for meeting and talking about Asia’s art histories. Young and emerging artists are promoted by Creative Generation, an initiative run by Java Creative Café. This growth attests to the failures of the KR purification campaign, which aimed to annihilate intellectuals and artists within the city. 

While the presence of creativity is exciting, the absence of a national gallery or museum of modern art, and the lack of art criticism, are still challenges that Phnom Penh faces. The government’s decision last year to shut down the Cambodia Daily, one of two newspapers that regularly features cultural events, was a big loss for the art community. Another issue that impinges the arts scene is the paucity of local collectors and patronage.

However, there is hope in the form of public funding. In September 2016, UNESCO Phnom Penh, with the city’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, established the first-ever Cambodian Art Forum. The forum invites those in the creative industry to convene and discuss the current Cambodian art environment. Its second session, held in 2017, was focused on public funding. As a result, the Ministry is now exploring possibilities to establish stable funding for culture, but it is uncertain when and if further information will be revealed. 

Phnom Penh has a long way to go in terms of a fully developed art ecosystem, but despite these limitations, creativity persists, indicating a desire to grow. 

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