Monday, March 23, 2009

Khmer boys show off

Written by ERIN GLEESON Sa Sa Gallery's 'Art Rebels' forge new creative paths
Thursday, 19 March 2009

Young, hip and dedicated, the eight artists behind the collective have embraced an ensemble approach to bringing non-traditional perspectives to the masses

Sa Sa Gallery co-founders say they want to teach up-and-coming artists to see their environment in a new way.
A COUPLE of months ago, I visited the peaceful grounds of the Khmer Arts Academy in Takhmao to meet with former Minister of Culture Chheng Pong. It was my third meeting that month with different retired cultural ministers - the goal being to have an open-ended discussion on contemporary visual arts in Cambodia.

Among many other approaches to the topic, I gave Chheng Pong a slideshow on my computer of artworks by more than a dozen contemporary Cambodian artists whose practices and themes are wide-ranging, from the oldest and now deceased self-taught painter-of-the-everyday Svay Ken, to a young artist from the Reyum Art School making large paper sculptures of mythical figures.

Chheng Pong was surprised to see the vitality and development, which deviated from the Royal University of Fine Art's beaux-arts approach of preserving idealised forms and passing the style on to future generations. He, like the other ministers, and like myself, contemplated the collective unawareness of these artists and their practices, and more broadly, why contemporary visual artists receive nearly no support from the Ministry of Culture.

An ensemble tradition
Along with other thoughtful formulas, Chheng Pong mentioned that because contemporary artists most often work individually, they are seen to communicate individual expression, which is contrary to the nature of the historical artisan practice: "The spirit of Khmer culture is an ensemble. It is not an individualistic culture. We see the whole. The individual worker is not part of the cultural participation unless working with the masses. Mass is considered the highest way of working."


The five young artists and founders of Cambodia's first artist-run gallery Sa Sa feel the same, and they are determined to encourage their generation to better understand that individualistic expression is for the masses, too.

Vandy Rattana, photographer and current Sa Sa Gallery leader (a position that will rotate annually), was recently at the internationally praised Drik Photography Festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh, with the On Photography Cambodia project. There, he encountered an active community of Bangladeshi artists and cultural workers engaged with an energetic and supportive Bangladeshi public. He wanted to bring this sense of engagement to Cambodia, a sentiment echoed by many other Cambodian artists thriving from opportunities to travel and exchange with other Asian art communities who have wider reception in their cultures.

Photographer and Sa Sa co-founder Lim Sokchan Lina believes he must engage with students to promote the gallery and artists' practices at Norton University, where he is currently a student. He believes this gesture will allow young Cambodians to gain new perspectives through art. "Non-traditional art is a new thing for them because they don't know about other galleries in Phnom Penh or outside Cambodia," Lim Sokchan Lina said. "The students know their memories, but they don't know photography. Through photography exhibitions at Sa Sa, we will show them the environment they encounter in a new way."

Sa Sa takes its name from the first syllables in the artist collective's full name - Stiev Selepak, or "Art Rebels". Founded in 2007, the collective's purpose is to "help each other achieve art projects by sharing knowledge and resources".

An accidental beginning
For the past two years, Sa Sa's eight members met informally in different spaces to discuss projects or invite speakers to share experiences. They collaborate on various projects based on their strengths or availability. Recently, three members designed the set for a new Cambodian play, Breaking the Silence.

After two years, why a gallery? "It was an accident," said Vandy Rattana. "I was eating at Bai Tong restaurant on street 360 and the co-owner (Community Legal Education Center's Ou Virak) walked up to me and asked if I could hang my photographs on the wall. By the end of the conversation, we decided to involve the Stiev Selepak group not only in the restaurant exhibitions but also in a small wing of the building that we call the Main Gallery."

The way forward
It made sense to Vandy Rattana that the way forward was to take on leadership roles in other areas of the field beyond making art - a healthy development in any emerging art scene.

The Sa Sa space will be both a commercial gallery and a meeting place, or, what co-founder Khvay Samnang calls a home. "We have a consistent place now, like a home. That stability allows us to be more creative together. It's motivating."

To begin with, Stiev Selepak members will jointly curate a balance between contemporary and traditional art exhibitions from Cambodians. The wall space throughout the two-level restaurant, which will act as a semi-permanent exhibition, and the separate Main Gallery will rotate exhibitions every two or three months. Co-founder Kong Vollak, who participated in a curatorial training program in 2008, would like to give opportunities to students from the Royal University of Fine Arts, where three Sa Sa members are alumni. In the future, they hope to host artists they have met throughout the region.

Although all founders have assisted with organising and installing many exhibitions in Cambodia, co-founder Heng Ravuth used a Khmer proverb about frogs venturing from their small pond to convey the challenge and excitement that comes with new responsibilities. They are thankful for friends who are students of management and accounting who can help with the business aspect of running a gallery.

With the Main Gallery measuring a mere 20 square metres, Sa Sa Gallery is poised to show the expanding Cambodian art community and the deflating economy that small is beautiful.

"INTRO", Sa Sa Gallery's inaugural exhibition, opens this Saturday from 6pm to 10pm at No 7, Street 360, Boeung Keng Kang, Phnom Penh.

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