Amazing Cambodia!August 30, 2013
The Amazing Cambodia exhibition is ready. We spent the morning sticking up old photographs with blue tac… well, it must have been some special Chinese blue tac because it was very sticky. You had to spent a minute trying to get it off your fingertips and attached to the back of the photo.
Soukhmean Sri directed things like a diva. Halfway through, we posed for photos like models: V-signs flashed. Behind us, the back wall was filled with mugshots of Cambodia’s most famous film stars and singers. A welcome antidote to the grisly shots of the victims of Tuel Sleng.
The Amazing Cambodia exhibition is an example of the optimism brought by the coming-of-age of Cambodia’s first peacetime generation: the Facebook freaks; the smartphone wavers. Cambodia’s internet generation has brought about changes that warrant comparisons with the Western social revolutions of the 1960s.
The new generation are slowly beginning to express a desire for personal independence from conservative social norms: this generation’s light is split in a prism to form a rainbow of punks, poets and a gay community.
Amazing Cambodia started as a Facebook group two years ago and has been posting images recovered by Soukhmean Sri ever since. So far it has nearly 20,000 likes. The popularity of the page is indicative of a generation searching for a heritage that is relevant to them and their concerns. To find it, they have returned to the last Cambodian generation to know peace and stability: the 1960s. They have more in common with folks from this time then the war-torn generations of their parents. In the 1960s, the embrace of film and music technologies from the West was as enthusiastic as their embrace of internet and Hip Hop is today.
Back then, like today, the appropriation of Western technology was no cultural imperialism. The technology, in Khmer hands, was used to make Khmer films and songs that drew inspiration but never prescription from Western artists.
In a city where tourists ‘do’ the Killing Fields and Toul Sleng like they might ‘do’ Istambul’s Blue Mosque or Paris’ Eiffel Tower, Amazing Cambodia brings a much needed light to a different kind of Cambodia: a country once giddy with independence and where the creative industries began to create new media for the boulevard-strolling flaneurs of Phnom Penh.
Amazing Cambodia opens a door to a piece of Khmer history that is not stained with blood. Sukhmean and his volunteers are barely in their 20s but their careful curation shows a fascination that any educated person would feel; but also something more – they are claiming a time which mirrors their own. They never experienced the horrors of the war so the horror of the last 30 years is something they can never really grasp. When it comes to history, it is natural for them to turn to the 1960s: a time as optimistic and creative as their own.
Even as their peaceful experience is threatened by political sabre rattling, these kids refused to be scared. They are here, hanging this pictures armed with cameras and smartphones – and, unfortunately, a few pairs of elephant trousers – they are bringing to us a reminder that Cambodia is not just about insane violence and Angkor Wat.
Too much of the discourse about Cambodia is taken up with talk of the Rouge, too many conversations tut-tut the brutality of recent decades, too many tourists think a trip to Phnom Penh isn’t complete without viewing monolith of skulls. I’m not saying that these things should be forgotten but they certainly should be taking up a lot less space in our heads when we discuss Cambodia.
Given the tense political situation in the country right now we need more than ever to be reminded of the cultural achievements of peacetime Cambodia. Other students are looking even further back in Cambodia’s cultural history to find peacetime beauty to bring to the exhibition. Students from the School of Fine Arts plan to perform a traditional dance of the kind almost wiped out by the Rouge. While war has its own brutal aesthetic, art and culture thrives in times of peace where consciousness is not caught up in the need for survival. The first peacetime generation of today is bringing back those aesthetics destroyed by war.
Amazing Cambodia invites us to look back at a technicolour time. Had it not been for Soukhmean contacting old directors, singers and photographers – badgering them for access to their archives, these photos would be lost.
Some of the photos are blasted and faded, some are unclear, and, when put together by an enthusiastic bunch of students, no exhibition is can be described as sleek. Do not come expected high art. Instead, come to to see a time and beauty almost lost by war and subsequent obsession with war. Come to support Cambodia’s cultural revitalization.
The exhibition opens on Saturday 31st August at Meta House at 6pm and runs for one week. Prints are available for sale.