Phnom Penh’s urban artistic renaissance

Posted on by Myles Hallin


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Phnom Penh is enjoying an urban artistic renaissance, a revitalisation of Khmer contemporary music and art culture which is as fast and exciting as the development of the capital itself. The reasons for this revival are numerous and complicated, but it includes the influence of the increasing presence of international artists, a vibrant local art and music scene and numerous organisations who aim to encourage and rejuvenate Khmer artistic expression.

When looking at Phnom Penh’s impressive artistic revival, it’s important to note the key role played in recent months by the ‘Develop Boeung Kak’ collective, an organisation that is managing to bring artists together to collectively oversee one of the city’s most vivid transformations, turning the old lakeside district – that until recently suffered from a fairly deserving reputation built upon sketchy characters, drugs and sleaze – into a lively, safe, and attractive area which focuses on community building, promoting Khmer cultural art forms and providing entertainment.

This phenomenon of looking to the arts as an economic catalyst for revitalising and improving an urban area’s quality of life is not, of course, unique to Phnom Penh. Cities around the world, small and large, have realised that a vibrant arts scene can attract people downtown and spur the opening of restaurants and other supportive amenities. In the case of lakeside it is even more important as a launching platform for the revitalisation of Khmer contemporary art and music culture.

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The area of Phnom Penh best known as lakeside, despite the lack of a lake these days, has been at the centre of several projects focused on artistic expression and community development over the last six months. The latest project, which was the catalyst for the recent Solidarity Festival, is the creation of an artist run community space called Art House.

According to its founders, this will be an open and accessible space for artistic and musical development and will help the community generate revenue and support art. Art House and the other lakeside projects have so far had unprecedented success in terms of bringing together many of Phnom Penh’s musical and artistic elite and have begun work on several projects with numerous organisations that work with underprivileged youth or the arts, like the skateboarding NGO Skaterstan, with the aim of providing accessibility to the arts to Khmer youth.

Although some independent artistic organisations, like Phnom Penh’s Art Cult, are not yet willing to get involved, in this case because the proposed project doesn’t fit the brand’s image, almost all the significant players in Phnom Penh’s ever growing artistic community are willing to finally come together in an effort to help develop the scene as a whole. This is a goal which had not been achieved in Phnom Penh, on any level, until quite recently.

Ludi, a middle-aged French power house who started the lakeside bar Simon Art and is the driving force behind the development project, is a passionate and strong woman. She speaks in a direct, no nonsense sort of way that is both passionate and inspiring. Ludi came to Cambodia and instantly fell in love with the warmth and creativity of the people. For her it is important to help develop and strong community with a united front.

“‘Solidarity’ is necessary for us to evolve as a community,” she says. “We are collaborating with many artists and supporters who share this vision and we have plans for future collaborations that will help develop the community and encourage art.”

Collaborations such as the event with Skaterstan in June continued to spread awareness and support the community at Boeung Kak. In fact the area is set to feature in an upcoming Metahouse exhibition titled Creativity in the City which explores creative projects taking place in Europe and Asia.

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There isn’t a finite link between contemporary artists and the few remaining artists from an older generation; but it is being built by artists for artist through institutions like the Sammaki art space in Battambang or the newly collectivised Yab Moung Records in Phnom Penh. It is foundational and highly accessible platforms such as these, which are shaped largely by Khmer artists for Khmer artists, which are pushing this cultural renaissance. Supported by a myriad of expat platforms like Simon Arts, Cambodian Living Arts, Show Box and various NGOS, one need only wander the streets to witness firsthand the beginning of the artistic revolution.

Cambodia has a brilliantly rich history in contemporary creative expression, stemmed in the globally defining psychedelic rock of the 1960s through legendary artists like Ros Sereysothea. After a couple of missing decades after the Khmer Rouge period – and lack of artistic influence of that time – the next generation, against all odds, began to find their own way.

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Tin is the lead singer in Sliten6ix, one of Cambodia’s most first and most infamous hardcore/metal bands. He explains that Cambodian rock groups like ANTI-Fate and Sliten6ix are by and large misunderstood by modern day Khmers. “They mostly just don’t get it, but the scene has defiantly progressed in the last few years,” he says. “Every time we get together and throw a big show, like Cambo Headbangers, the numbers double. That’s a lot when you think about it.”

More traditional Khmer music is finding a renewed vigour, too. Although much of popular music is dominated by hits that copy Chinese, Thai, Korean and American styles, traditional forms are beginning to resurface with a contemporary twist, thanks to outfits like Kok Thlok busting out Funky Khmer fusion as well as traditional shadow theatre or Klap Your Handz and their extensive network of artists and Khmer centric musical productions.

The rejuvenation of positive Khmer artistic culture through collaboration and positivity is set to be an uphill struggle for the lake side collective, however Ludi remains positive. “It is about developing art and being human,” she says. “If we come together we can do great things, both for the community and for the artists here in Phnom Penh.”

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