No one would describe Cambodia as a vital center of the visual arts in Southeast Asia.
While there are art schools and art exhibitions, the output does not tend to be memorable. (When it comes the visual arts, I find photography to be the most accomplished.)
One reason must be the decimation of the population of artists and intellectuals during the Khmer Rouge genocide, depriving later generations of role models who might inspire, instruct and encourage them. A second explanation has to rest on the country’s excessive rate of poverty, which undoubtedly forces young people into jobs with certain, if minimal, income.
So it was that I hastened to last Thursday’s opening of a show at the French Institute of works by the internationally acclaimed Sopheap Pich, a 46-year-old Cambodian-born artist.
His family had escaped the Khmer Rouge genocide in a Thai refugee camp prior to emigrating to the U.S., where the artist was reared from the age of 13. Primarily educated there, though he also studied art in France, Pich now makes art in a studio on the outskirts of Phnom Penh following his return to Cambodia in 2002.
When the Metropolitan Museum of Art devoted a gallery to a marvelous exhibition of his a few years back, his enormous sculptures of bamboo and rattan struck me as poetically gorgeous. I thus was eager to meet Pich (this, his last name, means “diamond” in Khmer) and tell him how much I admired his sculptures. I did have the pleasure of doing that.
The sole such piece at the French Institute moved me less, though I was captivated by a wall hanging called Crater, which is visible in the photos below and can be expanded with a click. (The exhibition continues until March 18.)
The well attended opening included not only the usual wine and potato chips but also remarks by three dignitaries, including the French ambassador and Minister of Culture Phoeurng Sackona, in French and Khmer. My facility with each language is limited, but it seems that they did little more than outline his background and praise him.
For his part, Pich seemed as if he had heard it all before, and undoubtedly that is true.
To my mind, the art speaks for itself. Eloquently.