Cambodian Exodus—From the Border to Khao I Dang Refugee Camp: photo exhibitions in the USA, April 2023

By Colin Grafton.

During COVID, my wife Keiko and I occupied ourselves with various projects we might never have got around to otherwise—one exhibition at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, two photo exhibitions at Bophana Center, and a book titled Dancers.

The advantage of course was that we had plenty of time; the disadvantage was that the venues could not be open to the public, so these exhibitions had to be seen by reservation only. I had to take groups of (maximum) 10 people around the gallery, and give a little talk. This evolved later into two ‘video talks’, unrehearsed and one-take affairs, one on Naoki Mabuchi’s classic photos of the Khmer Rouge era and the other on Refugees—Forty Years Later, which consisted of my photos taken in 1980 around the Thai-Cambodian border and the refugee camps, notably the largest one, Khao I Dang.

The latter exhibition comprised over 100 images. Despite the audience limitations, it enjoyed as much exposure as we could hope for in the circumstances, and was favourably received. It was on display for over a month, as there was nothing to replace it at the time, and the ‘gallery talk video’ went on YouTube. This in fact made it accessible to a much wider audience than we had envisaged. Most of those who viewed it were interested from a historical, objective point of view, but few had any close connection with the events it depicted.

Six years earlier, in January 2015, I had met an American filmmaker named Robert Douglas at the Cambodian International Film Festival. One of his 30-minute documentaries, From The Heart Of Brahma, was screening in the festival. Our shared interest in Cambodian dance and music led to a close friendship. Rob got married to a Cambodian lady, Navy, and went back to the States. We kept in contact.

Rob lives in Long Beach, LA, and a lot of his work as ‘visual anthropologist’ is centred on the Cambodian community. He mentioned a few times that it would be a great idea to show photos of the refugee camps in California, and my reaction was “Yeah, maybe, but it’s a long way away, isn’t it?” Pie in the sky. I had no desire to go to America either, especially at that time when COVID was still rife. If I’d been the praying kind, I would have been praying for Rob and Navy’s survival, but a visit to Trumpland was bottom of my list of things to do.

However, last year, as the world began to open up again, I started getting intimations of a scheme from Rob. He was talking with the Cambodia Town Long Beach community, and thought they might offer to host the Refugees exhibition in LA. I still did not give much credence to the idea, though I appreciated Rob’s enthusiasm and positive attitude. Then Rob informed us that the Cambodia Town community and Phnom Penh Sister Cities committee had given the green light, and would fund us with $5,000 to pay for our air tickets. In LA, we could stay with Rob and Navy and play with their three lovely kids, who were always running around full of energy, shrieking. A dream come true.

We arrived in LA on March 28th, a few hours after we left Phnom Penh, since we were travelling forward into yesterday. We were loaded with baggage, four suitcases containing photographs and copies of the Dancers book for sale.  Rob picked us up at the airport and took us to his home by a circuitous route, stopping off to say hello to famous rapper PraCH Ly and sightseeing at the beach and Trump’s country club. We were high as hell on lack of sleep and jetlag so it didn’t bother us. It took about two hours to reach his house, which is 20 minutes from the airport.

The next few days were spent assembling the photo panels in Rob’s garage, scouting the exhibition venues and meeting important people in the Long Beach Cambodian community. We noticed that Cambodian Americans seemed to have a lot of energy and talked a lot, very fast. We also noted that a noodle soup cost $20, which was equal to one-and-a-half books at the Cambodian price.

Our first event was 2nd April, the day of the Cambodia Town Parade. The photo exhibit went on display in the Manazar Gamboa ‘black box’ theatre. We had found out the theatre itself was too dark for the display, and there was no convenient lighting in it. Furthermore, it would be used for dressing up and rehearsing on the day of the parade. So the photos went up in the theatre lobby, which turned out to be just big enough. The parade in the morning was impressive, with ‘Trot’ dancers and Chhayam drummers, and a number of Apsaras.

The exhibition was open from 1 pm to 6 pm and it was crowded from opening to close – we had not expected this kind of reception. People were flocking to see the pictures, and many were saying they had been there in 1980, and they had stories to tell. Some became emotional. Our “Khmer family” in LA (I had met them in Khao I Dang refugee camp in 1980) were there, and were actively promoting the book, which featured some photos of one of the sisters as a dancer. She had been a shy, shrinking violet at the time, but had later matured into a star saleswoman for Shiseido cosmetics. She sold about thirty books in a few hours, and I was kept busy signing them while listening to stories told by onlookers about their experiences in KID and how they reached it from the border and how they got to the USA after that, via Malaysia or Indonesia….

Khao I Dang’s population in May 1980 was 130,000 and a large number of those people ended up eventually in Long Beach. They had memories but almost no photographs to document their time in the refugee camps. Their children had to listen to those memories, but they too had few visual connections to the experiences of their parents. And now there were all these photos, full of faces and familiar scenes of everyday life on the border… and so many smiling faces, because I was there at a time between the misery and suffering of 1979, when the first refugees poured out with the Khmer Rouge, and the later period when many settled into a routine lethargy of despair, stuck in a camp for years with no way out. It was a time of ephemeral euphoria, when many were relieved to have food and security, health care and hope for the future, after nearly four years of deprivation and terror under the Pol Pot regime.

From 5th to 9th April, the exhibition was on display at Museum of Latin American Art in LA. There is not much connection between Cambodia and Latin America apart from refugee status (from Guatemala, for example) but we were thankful to them for providing us the space in their entrance hall.

In the afternoon of 7th April, I did a slideshow and talk on the exhibition, and there was a panel discussion in the spacious conference hall. On 8th, we showed two screenings of Rithy Panh’s film Site 2, both to full houses. This film was made in 1989 in an even larger camp than Khao I Dang (the population of Site 2 at its highest topped 190,000). Some of the inhabitants had been in Khao I Dang before Site 2, others had arrived later, or been evacuated from the border hamlets of Nong Chan and Nong Samet after they had been wiped out by the Vietnamese. The film was preceded by a revealing interview with Rithy Panh about the making of the film, and together these served as an appropriate bookend presenting a contrast to the optimism of the Khao I Dang photos. After the screening, a Q&A session sparked many questions and comments. It was interesting that many people confused Site 2 with KID, when in fact they were different places.

Logistically, the tour held together reasonably well. We had to fly from LA to Seattle and from Seattle to Sacramento, and we couldn’t carry the photo displays on the plane. So we had to ship them to SF in advance. Setting up and taking down became a streamlined ritual. We used easels supplied by the venues.

America encourages creativity. Everyone should have their input considered. This sounds good, except that one good proven idea is worth any number of useless ones, however imaginative they may be. We found we had to be brutally firm sometimes in saying: “No! We’ll do it like this. Leave us alone.” We were dictatorial, but we had to be to get anything done. Another annoyance was over the choice of photos for posters and fliers. For example, we were told that anything showing violence, children or nudity would be unacceptable to ‘people on the Board’. Bit of a problem there, since the refugee camps were full of kids, many of them stark naked! Consequently, we had to make do with some banal images that lacked impact.

From 14th to 17th April, we were in Seattle for film showing (15th) and slideshow/exhibition (16th). Khmer New Year celebrations were held at Wat Chas (the old pagoda), a picturesque temple in a valley. The smaller population of Cambodians here were somewhat different. Many had originally come from rural areas, not Phnom Penh, and they were more involved in farming than business.

From 17th to 22nd, we were in Napa (at a private gallery, by invitation) and San Francisco, at San Mateo College.  In Napa, we just hung stuff up along a garden fence for a popup afternoon show. Indian dancers came to provide entertainment. The wine was good, but the weather was cold, and people didn’t stay after sunset.

‘Frisco was our last stop, and we finally had time to enjoy the company of some old Cambodian friends (from 1974) and some of the sights recommended by our bluesman friend Big D. Walker (Muir Woods for the redwood trees, and “The Saloon”, oldest blues bar in San Francisco).

On 21st at San Mateo College, we set up the exhibition (which had been shipped from LA) for the last time, and I did a combined presentation with Neak Kru Charya Burt, dance master sister of Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, the famous dancer who recently performed a prayer dance in front of stolen artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. One highlight of this session was when I jokingly invited anyone who saw themselves in the photographs to make a claim, and one woman literally ran up to the front of the stage with a “That’s me!”. She was one of the students at a dance class in Khao I Dang.

We left America just after midnight on 23rd April. The 19 display panels were adopted by Dr. Susan Needham, anthropologist, co-director of the Cambodian Community History & Archive Project (CamCHAP), a community-based research and learning centre created in 2008, who will use them for educational purposes.

The last word should be an enormous Thankyou to our ‘road manager’ Rob, aka Carl Off, aka Robert Carleton-Chhaing, who drove us around, filmed everything, accompanied us almost everywhere, and put up with our complaints and my sense of humour.

As a postscript, my only harmonica performance in LA was for Rob’s kids, who ran around me in circles shouting and screaming in perfect harmony.


  • Some copies of the book “Dancers” are still available in Phnom Penh, please email for details:

Photos: supplied. “These are all from Manazar Gamboa Theater on April 2nd. The lady in turquoise is Dinaka, who is also the central dancer in the colour photo taken 43 years ago, who sold 30 books in a couple of hours. The tall man in black in the cap is Rob, the filmmaker who arranged the trip.”

Reloading A-N-T-O-P-I-A with Carlo Santoro

This Saturday 27 at 7 pm at Seekers Spirit House the intrepid traveller will find a multi-faceted event entitled A-N-T-O-P-I-A/PAPERS, put together by Metaestetica Lab, a mixed media participatory installation and performance including the Kampot Playboys, DJs, painters, video, sculpture, Old Uncle Tom Cobly and all.  Kumnooh sat down with the proposer of the event, Carlo Santoro, as the rain poured down, to try to get a handle on all that’s going on. 

You are describing this as a reload, but a reload of what precisely?  “The first version of A-N-T-O-P-I-A was put together for the European Film Festival in February 2023 – one single installation work.  It’s not an exhibition, it’s an installation one single product created by artists from many different disciplines – painting, sculpture, architecture, printing, video and performance. 

“Originally it was a one-night-only at Perch – 100 square metres, 15 artists, five videos, movies, DJs, sculpture – all on the 35th floor.  We mounted in one day and dismantled the day after, with the hope that we would set up again shortly after.  A few days later Seekers Spirits agreed to host the installation – one third of it, just 30 square metres, we lost the video and DJ component – so it was mostly the ready-mades, sculptures and painting.” 

A-N-T-O-P-I-A the first time around at Perch. Photos: supplied

Given a broad theme of the marginalised spaces of a rapidly changing and expanding Phnom Penh, the artists were, and have been again, given a chance to play; the audience then react to what has been assembled as they see fit.  Installations like ours meet audience expectations in the context of a film festival.  Two months later, when we repurposed the installation at Seekers for the Warehouse Rave party, attendees were going to dance, and I doubt they really looked forward to an installation of readymades picked up on the street and rusty metal works arranged in the corner of the dance floor, so they considered it part of the space.  People enjoyed the music, but they also wandered around inside the space until the early hours of the morning, which made for an unusual time to relate to the objects we proposed. For us the key component is the public, the participation – it’s a social interaction.  The typical idea of Metaestetica is that it is not the physical outer that produces the aesthetics but rather the social system, the relationship between the work produced by the artist and the viewing audience.” 

So how have artists responded to this general call?  “As said, the main part of the installation consists of rusty metal sculpture with animals and plants morphing through it by Gregory Gosselin, paintings by Theo Valllier, representing the everyday conditions of the typical Phnom Penh city centre, the objects collected from the streets that are in active transformation.  To give you an idea, today one of the city’s major transformations is about to take place along the old railway line in Russei Keo, north of the Japanese Bridge, where the road is currently being widened. People living on the edge of the road are reoccupying the road as they build it, then moving on to the next marginal area.  This is everyday life for the specific conditions of the city.  We tried to buy some of the abandoned/found objects in these spaces – for example an apparently abandoned bed, sitting there, kids playing on it.  It took two or three days, they found the owner, sold for $30.  And so on for many other objects.” 

And you mentioned readymades, as proposed by Marcel Duchamp?  “Right, they are also hidden in the installation. I actually tried to find an exact copy of the Duchamp bicycle wheel.  I went to SuperDuper to buy four cans of Campbell’s tomato soup and placed them in the space, with the receipt, to acknowledge Andy Warhol.  And we got a tyre for Rauschenberg’s Monogram but we missed the goat, so got at least the goat skin, imported for us by Diego Wilkins.  Of course, it wasn’t much noticed during the rave party: okay, there’s tins of soup.  No one even questioned it. Someone laid down on our 30$ bed to smoke a cigarette for half an hour. They didn’t look surprised at all.  Slowly people started to take in the installation, read things, walk around inside, explore the situation and adapt to it. The whole thing might look really surprising from an outside perspective, for them it was quite familiar” 

A-N-T-O-P-I-A the second time around at Seekers as the rave party rages and flags. Photos: supplied

What about the performance side?  “There’s a room where you have a concert and DJs on one side, an installation on the other side, with video projections as well, raising the idea of locality, for locations which have been deprived of the idea of being a locality in the sense of an existing place.  Appearing and disappearing.  And then we do the same with music.

ANTOPIA is also a retrospective, looking back at art and movements in the 1960s.   Sao Sopheak and Nick E Meta will be DJing with old vinyl records to introduce the Kampot Playboys, who represent a continuation of the Golden Era story – a story of appearing and disappearing.” 

But wait there’s more.  “On the 27th we will try to increase the size – rather than being a side event.   Theo Vallier and Jean-Pascal Vittori will again be doing live silkscreen printing with a machine they invented.  There is also a repeat performance by Vannak Khun called The Two Brothers, two masked brothers coming from the countryside to try to explore these unfamiliar objects.  We have paintings and printings originally created by street artist Theo Vallier.  Pisey Kosal’s video portion places a student standing in a road, the image fading from colour to and white – tfading people, as he said.  Miguel Jeronimo is bringing artificial intelligence reinterpretations of Phnom Penh – the pictures are generating glitches and split in seconds, so the images appear dystopian but then they snap and go away, then generate another one, another one.  A sequence, a collage.  Another A-N-T-O-P-I-A dismantled condition.”

And the PAPERS part to the title, for this reload, what’s that about?  “Print art, paper collage, mixed media but mainly using paper as the medium.  We have three contemporary Cambodian painters representing three generations – Sous Soudavy, Chhim Sothy anad Chhan Dina – with a tribute to Srey Bandaul, celebrated as a pioneer of the art movement in Battambang province.   Don’t think of something curated by single person – it’s co-curated by the collection of people that come together under the banner of Metaestetica Lab, a collective of artists and non-artists.” 

The porous notion of the proposed theme allows the audience to experience it through their own context, take meanings from it as they will.  Make it up yourself.  “After all, another of the possible definitions is instead of an-topia it’s ant-opia, the playground of the ants, which links back to the metal sculpture that includes human beings, domestic animals, the not-urban and the not-natural.  People can get inside and thus participate within the place and become the new occupant.”

Plenty to explore as the music plays this Saturday, May 27 at Seekers Spirit House from 7 pm. 

It happens once: Samithi Sok’s joy of theatre

Coming soon to Java Creative Café Tuol Tom Pong is a new play by playwright Samithi Sok, Wind Up Mice, co-directed by Samithi and Marika Els.  Samithi was good enough to sit down with Kumnooh this week to discuss the world of theatre. 

“This is the second play that I’ve written and directed,” says Samithi.  “Wind Up Mice is about a couple who are trapped in a time-loop and they are forced to relive their relationship over and over again from start to finish.  It explores ideas of free will, resentments and toxic relationships, trying to preserve what we can really hold on to.  Three sets of actors represent the one relationship in three different time-frames.” 

Theatre’s low profile in Cambodia meant that it has been mostly learning-by-doing for Samithi, who got involved while attending ISPP, taking part in teacher-led and then student-led drama and musical productions, and by year 11 had caught the theatre bug enough to take it as a subject in his IB.  This was followed by studies at the University of York, unfortunately cut short by COVID.

Last October his first play, 12-8, was produced by Phnom Penh Players.  This time he and Marika wanted to strike out on their own.  “The Phnom Penh Players are very well-established, they’ve been around for a long time.  I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it independently.  I have a great team to support me – I don’t think I would have been able to do it if I didn’t have my co-director Marika.  She is my rock, and she has helped me in every step.  We’ve got a great team – our performers are really giving their all – especially we have two actors who have never done a show before, but they are working hard, really doing their very best.” 

Independence has its costs as well as benefits, he admits.  “The biggest hurdle with this show is trying to get the word out.  Theatre is already very niche globally, and particularly in Cambodia it can be a challenge to find people to come to auditions, people who are willing to take on production roles, and importantly, to find and encourage audiences to attend.” 

Although born and raised in Phnom Penh, the 22 year old is one of the new generation finding their expressive voice through English.  “I’m more comfortable in English than I am in Khmer.  When I was very young I lived for some time in Switzerland, and there were not many people I could speak Khmer with, so I feel a little stunted in my grasp of the mother tongue.  I struggle with this – the previous play 12-8 was about two young adult Cambodians working in a convenience store and trying to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives, and I grappled with myself, is it really authentic if I’m writing in English all the time?  I decided that if I’m going to limit myself to only writing in Khmer then I’ll never be able to say anything.  More and more young people are learning English now.  And it’s there in the writing – the characters both speak in English and so feel alienated from their own society, they have trouble to connect, even though they want to fill that gap.” 

Rehearsals in progress. Photo: supplied

So why would a young Cambodian pursue something as obscure as theatre?  “What I love the most about theatre is the collaboration between the actors and the audience.  Knowing that it is a stage, and there’s a real live person in front of you, there’s an inherent layer of artifice.  It’s not like a movie where the aim is for super-realism.  You are already suspending disbelief – I am watching you be a different person in a different room.  It’s an interesting dynamic that doesn’t exist anywhere else. 

“And the magic of knowing that each performance is only going to happen once.  It doesn’t last, it shouldn’t last, and that is also what makes it so hard.  Anything that happens on the stage is only going to happen one time.  Opening night is all adrenalin and the excitement, when the energy is the highest; by the time you get to closing night the actors are the most comfortable with the play and they can play around a bit more.  It really feels magical – it happens once and it will never happen again. 

“One of my favourite plays is 70 Scenes of Halloween by Jeffrey Jones.  It blends a surreal presentation with horror-esque and strange goings-on with a very human story about a couple whose marriage is failing.  I like that blend, leading the audience in with something weird or funny, then follow up by hitting them with something quite affecting.”

Wind-up Mice may be experienced on 19, 20, 26 and 27 May at 7 pm, with an additional matinee at 1 pm on 27 May, at Java Creative Cafe Toul Tom Poung.   Tickets $12, available through this link

Rehearsals in progress. Photo: supplied

Darryl Collins: an appreciation of his contribution to Cambodia, 1994 -2023

By Margaret Bywater

Darryl Collins came to Cambodia at the beginning of 1994, as part of a restoration project working with the staff of the National Museum of Cambodia. Completion of repairs to the roof and other renovations were marked by a ceremony attended by King Sihanouk and the then Governor-General of Australia, The Hon. Bill Hayden, AC, on 28 April 1995.  Darryl returned briefly to Australia, but his Phnom Penh experience was to change his life; he resigned his job at the Australian National Gallery and was soon back in Cambodia teaching English at Australian Centre for Education, a connection that he retained for many years as a teacher and an examiner.  He encouraged many young Cambodians to pursue further study overseas.

From late 1999, Darryl was a lecturer at the Royal University of Fine Arts in the Department of Archaeology. During this time the chance finding of a very large collection of small black and white photographs of buildings in Cambodia led to a seven-year research project – he worked with fellow RUFA teacher and architect Helen Grant Ross and architectural student /researcher Hon Sokol produced a groundbreaking work, Building Cambodia: New Khmer Architecture 1953-1970, which was published in December 2006. 
As Manager of the Collection Inventory Project in 2004 Darryl directed the important task of creating a digital register of the entire collection of the National Museum, including the transfer of all the early French records.  Darryl continued to conduct research, further developing his understanding and appreciation of Khmer culture and civilisation, including a one-year consultancy for the Department of Culture and Research of the APSARA Authority, ceaselessly lecturing and writing articles for publication in local and international journals and newsletters.  Darryl delighted in sharing his knowledge with students, the general public and other scholars and interested visitors to the kingdom.  He was appointed to the Board of Heritage International and was still a board member at the time of his death.
Once Darryl moved to Siem Reap in 2008, he became a well known figure in the community and was widely respected for his knowledge of Khmer history and culture. He donated a collection from his own library when the Centre for Khmer Studies Library was establishing its Southeast Asia collection in 2001.

His personal belief in the need to preserve and document traditional Khmer wooden houses and the need to encourage Cambodians to value these beautiful dwellings is the light that shines on every page of his last book, Cambodian Wooden Houses: 1,000 years of Khmer heritage, co-authored with Hok Sokol, published by SIPAR, 2021.

Does it look good? Photography in Cambodia: 1866 To The Present

Currently running at Meta House in Phnom Penh is an exhibition, Photography in Cambodia: 1866 To The Present, which accompanies a newly published book of the same name.  The sumptuous and handsome volume is the brainchild of Nicholas Coffill, and has a rather unusual genesis – it came out of a stage performance entitled SNAP1 – 150 Years of Photography in Cambodia, that started in 2016 at Bambu Stage in Siem Reap. 

“I decided to turn the show into something a bit more permanent,” says Nicholas.  “I put three solid years into it, and then off to the printers and the post-production.  I really enjoyed it.  I’ve been involved for a long time in the museum world – there are often great catalogues of collections, and I’ve seen some beautiful books about photography in Australia and India, but Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries just don’t have anthologies of their photographic history. I thought I could do that – I know where most of the collections are, if I don’t I can just ask more friends.” 

And the response?  “It’s selling like hot cakes. I imported 500 five weeks ago and have none left. I had to bring in the last 400 from the publishers in Singapore, they just arrived a week ago and they’re all being shipped off to local bookstores and hotels of repute.  So it’s going really well.” 

The format is one that seeks to link the photographs to their time and their significance.  “I wanted a book that a reader – Cambodian or expat or traveler – could look at, dip in, look around, put down and do something else, come back, open up, read another little story. The text provides context for the object rather than being about the object itself.  This is basically the history of Cambodia from 1866 to today with only 100 words a page.” 

A fascinating theme of the collection is the changing look of the Angkorian temples from the middle of the nineteenth century on – we’ve all seen endless photos of Angkor Wat and the Bayon, but here they are seen from different views, at different times and stages of reconstruction, and frequently capturing observations by contemporary visitors. The photograph used on the front cover is illustrative.  “You can date many photos by what people are wearing.  We spoke to a few costume specialists and they said oh, perhaps 56, 57, perhaps 61 – late 50s cool.”

The photograph as found object also has its place.  “There’s two found objects in the exhibition, both discovered within a few weeks of each other.  There’s one portrait with a rice paste smeared on it, found in the streets in Phnom Penh by Taber Hand about three months ago, and we couldn’t work it out.  I’ve since spoken to a few older Cambodians and read a few books about funerary practice, and we believe this photograph was probably taken in the 60s or early 70s of a young boy and he probably died this year.  During the long period of mourning any mirrors or glassy surfaces would have been covered with powder or fabric, so the soul is not confused, and goes back to heaven rather than going through this strange vortex. So this was an attempt to cover that up.  Why it was then discarded we don’t know. This photograph now has a second life as a piece of memorabilia.” 

Another angle of the nature of photography rises to the surface – the changing meaning and purpose of an image.  “A photograph of a young Cambodian taken at S21, it’s an ID photograph, a document of the processing of people.  When the Vietnamese came the photographs were collected, cleaned, copied, and put on display and became objects more about education.  Then they were used as evidence in trials at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.  Then they were reproduced again and put on large boards and taken around to villages outside Phnom Penh by DC-Cam and used to educate villagers about what was happening with the Tribunal, and to encourage discussion and healing, so they become a tool of sociology: here is the grandmother, here is the son, what are your experiences? Do you have any photographs in your own family that you want to bring out and talk about?  And now it has become a psychological tool of memory.

“Here’s an image of Son Sen, one of the Khmer Rouge leaders, that was displayed in the S21 genocide museum in the early 80s, and over the next decade Cambodians mutilated it, writing vulgar comments across it.  The photograph in the book of the vandalised image was taken by the Catalan photographer Dani Planas Labad in 2007 – so how do you document that? This is a cut-out of a much larger photograph, many people have torn and written on it, thrown their emotions into it.  Is it still a photograph taken in 1976?  Is it a photograph reproduced in 1984?  Is it a damaged photograph that’s has been photographed 15 years ago?  How do I date it?  I like that kind of challenge.” 

The Defacing of Son Sen’s Photograph. Toul Sleng (S-21) Genocide Museum, Phnom Penh. 2007. Dani Planas Labad.

In conversation many favourite choices spring up as examples.  “There’s a photo from the early days of colour printing, inside a French restaurant, Café de Paris, on Post Office Square in 1966.  You can see the early 60s light fittings, a Miro-esque painting on the raw concrete floor, and exposed bricks.  Most photography books are full of the best of photographs, by the most well-known photographers, good quality prints, and some would say why are you putting crap photographs like this in?  But I have no qualms about including social history. No doubt this was taken by a Cambodian rather than French photographer, working for Kambuja Illustrated Monthly, one of the popular magazines at the time.” 

Patrons dining at the Café du Paris, Phnom Penh. 1966. Photographer unknown. Kambuja Monthly Illustrated Review, October 15, 1966. Center for Khmer Studies Library, Siem Reap.

So what were the selection criteria for images to be included?  “A photo that really catches the eye, or that captures a really important historical or cultural moment, or knowing the reputation of photographers that had a good eye.  Just using those rough three choices really helped to fill out the bulk, and then it was just a case of idiosyncratic things to put in the big pile, and laying out pages, seeing how they work, seeing rhythms or counter-rhythms. 

“When it came to twenty-first century and contemporary photographers working now in Cambodia I passed the curation over to Jessica Lim of the Angkor Photo Festival and Workshops, and just peppered in some social history stuff, like dental x-rays, found objects, thus breaking down the structure of the photographer as artist and showing a richer stream of imagery.”

Photography in Cambodia: 1866 To The Present, all 1.3 kilograms of it, is now available in Phnom Penh at the Minimalist Café & Bookshop, Gallery Pi-Pet-Pi and the National Museum for $39.99.

the more you look the more you see

Currently at The Plantation is a new exhibition, Eyes of Cranes, by Chhan Dina.  Unfortunately, the November 28 community event forced cancellation of the opening, but the show has gone on, and you can visit, taking appropriate precautions, daily. 

Like much of her recent work, Dina’s paintings on display are inspired by the natural environment.  “Wherever I go I always look around me, especially at the trees,” she says.  “Young artists often only think about beauty, to make a nice painting.  A water buffalo in the sunset at Angkor Wat.  And of course art work can be beautiful, but it needs to have some meaning.  I may work on the same ideas for many years, I keep coming back to the same themes and subjects, but I never get bored. 

There has been a gradual movement in Dina’s work from capturing humans in activity and in family, over to the natural world, and the same analogous relationships.  “I worked at Friends International, Mith Samlanh, for many years, and I worked with a lot of street kids, and painted a lot of street kids.”  She sees the change as slight.   “Life as a bird is very family-oriented.  They build the nest, they have their babies and feed them, protect them.   When first went to Ratanakiri, Mondulkiri, it changed my life.  I felt different.  I saw things in my that I had never seen before.  I was particularly inspired by cranes.   The light, the reflections, can create something unique.” 

After starting small, Dina is now an established artist in Phnom Penh.  “I was 13 years old when I started to draw.  At 17, 18, I became an artist, I had an exhibition at Java Café, people bought my work.  I gave up for a while, maybe one year, then I came back.  I did whatever I wanted to do, because of my youth and freedom.  I kept on going, painting, painting, I like it, because this is what I can do.  And this is what I want to share to young people in Cambodia – to be without art is to have nothing.  It’s something you can share about your own country, your own self.  Can you imagine what life would look like without art, without music?” 

For all the nature painting, Dina’s work is more impressionistic and abstract than naturalist.  “My teacher said paint from your imagination, add something, make it  different.  He said ‘I want to see your brain make something bigger.  First I said, ‘Are you crazy?’  Now I know.  You don’t have to paint just what you see, you can paint your own version.  Think about Salvador Dali – do something strange!  Why does the animal have such long legs?  Why are there stairs going into the sky?  You can do whatever you want in your imagination.” 

Dina sees herself as part of a continuum of centuries of art in Cambodia.  “Angkor Wat inspires me so much, I’m never tired of that.  I see cranes and other carved into the temple walls.  Those generations of artists and my generation are connected.  I am proud to be an artist, and I am proud of my country.  We have something very special.  I love sculpture, and I see the Angkor Wat sculpture – if a take a photo you will forget, but when you see it and remember it, you will never forget.   The Angkor Wat smile has teeth, the apsaras have different faces – not just one artist or two artists, maybe hundreds or thousands of artists at work.  I’m so proud of the art of Cambodia.” 

However it troubles her that artists in Cambodia are often thought of as low status.  “Some Cambodian people think that art is nothing.  Don’t care about art, but care about expensive handbags, expensive sunglasses.  But who designs the bags and the glasses?  Artists.  So how do we get people to respect art?  When  I joined Cambodian Living Arts for one year, I researched art and culture in Cambodia, I went to Thailand, Vietnam, and different places, to see art in museums and galleries.  I’ve also been to museums in Britain and the Netherlands.  I wondered is it local people or tourists who visit?  In Cambodia, only expats buy the art work and place a good value on art.  But there is a lack of support for artists in Cambodia.  Who is going to buy?” 

Dina is a prolific artist, with an enthusiasm to try different media and styles. “I have no patience when I paint.  I always want to be finished, I can’t wait to be finished.  But sometimes it takes time.  And sometimes I paint two at the same time, so that when I cannot move forward because it needs to dry I can move to another one.  Then I break for a while, come back and look at the first and see what new perspective I can bring. 

“When I use ink or I use oil, the results are completely different.  Working in oil takes a long time, while working in ink – a few days and done.  So the techniques are different.  My ink work is different from others who have been working in ink for many years, so my approach creates something new.” 

So as the artist matures, the more you look the more you see?  “Exactly!” 

Eyes of Cranes runs until January 4. 

Howling at the pandemical moon

One of the many responses to the pandemic around the world this year has been a burst of creative and literary works.  This Saturday night at Cloud in Phnom Penh an event organised by the Siem Reap based HOWL Cambodia will celebrate this wave, launching a book, Face Masks & Hand Gels: A year of living COVIDly, a collection put together by Dr Howl himself, along with spoken word contributions from local writers and readers.  The Howl Word Jam is a spoken word format that brings together lovers of words, as creators and also appreciators of poetry and prose.   Dr HowlWayne McCallum – was good enough to answer some of Kumnooh’s questions. 

What was the genesis and inspiration of the HOWL concept?

One of the experiences I enjoyed during my involvement in the Kampot Writers and Readers Festival was discussions and events with fellow writers, publishers and poets. Having moved to Siem Reap in 2017 I had the idea—instead of repeating the festival experience — of using the flexibility of the ‘pop-up’ approach to curate regular ‘word’ events. These could entail anything from a talk with a visiting writer, a poetry workshop, a book launch or an open mic event. In fact anything where the ‘word’ was king (or queen).  

To me, HOWL seemed the perfect name choice and motif for the platform. Not only is it a call that carries from one to another, as words do, but it is also the title of the most famous poem by the influential beat writer, Alan Ginsberg. As inspiration it seemed well chosen, for the words and imaginary Ginsberg evoked in Howl opened up possibilities to how we write, speak — and with the story of the poem’s printing — how we publish. These are all values that I would like HOWL to nurture. Interestingly Ginsberg visited Siem Reap in 1963, his time there inspiring the long-form poem Ankor Wat (sic), a work whose meandering verse suggested that he partook in some local herb before his temple excursions.

Will this be the first HOWL event outside Siem Reap? Are more planned?

I know there has been a HOWL event in Kampot and I was approached about one being organised in Los Angeles, although I do not know if that went ahead. From my perspective, however, anyone can hold a HOWL event. This is the key — I do not see the concept as being owned by me — it’s like the call itself, one wolf howls and then another responses in its own way, the sound, like words, carrying on across terra firma and beyond.

Our next scheduled event after Phnom Penh will be a HOWL Word Jam in Siem Reap in February 2021. Other things tend to ‘pop-up’, which is what the platform is all about.

Siem Reap has obviously been hit harder than most areas in Cambodia during the year of living covidly due to the shutdown of international tourism. At the same time around the world the varied experiences of people during the pandemic has created a need for people to express themselves. Is it fair to say that the collation of Face Masks & Hand Gels is a response to these two intersecting pressures?

In the early days of the pandemic in Siem Reap HOWL chose to dedicate a page of its website to poetic and narrative expressions of the new circumstances. The idea was to give people an opportunity to express their feelings and an outlet for sharing them. With these goals I think it was successful, with different contributors getting back to me to say how cathartic they found the process of putting their feelings into words.

I should point out that contributions to the anthology came from beyond Cambodia – from Japan, Panama and France, as well as my native home, New Zealand.

It is indeed a varied collection, representing established writers as well as inspired amateurs – was it difficult to make the choices about what to include?

I took an ‘analytical’ approach, Google Analytics actually, and looked at what pieces had received the most hits and reading time. I also took a more human approach and included what I enjoyed reading. I also wanted to encourage diversity and delight, so this ensured some additional pieces were included. In the end it was not too difficult to hit on the final writings for submission.

Can you explain the significance of the cover design?

The cover is one for HOWL aficionados, as it is based on the original cover face for the City Lights publication of Ginsberg’s poem.

How will the HOWL Word Jam in Phnom Penh proceed? Is it too late for interested writers and readers to sign up to take part?

The PP event will feature a combination of ‘old souls’ — that is known readers such as Kosal Khiev, Jose Antonio Pineda and Scott Bywater — as well as ‘new voices’; by this I mean newbies to the reading world, who will have the opportunity to perform during the open mic portion of the evening. Typically a Word Jam features three or more sessions, with time between to visit the bar and talk to friends.

We will also dedicate a portion of the evening to readings from the anthology, from the original writers.

People can sign up on the night to read and we are open to all forms of the word, from poetry, fiction or non-, as well as original or non-original pieces. They main caveat is that a piece should be no longer than 5 minutes in length. Meanwhile, to encourage ‘new voices’, we will have a prize for ‘Best New Voice’ and ‘Best Khmer Voice’ on the night. Keep on howling . . .

Howl Word Jam and book launch at Cloud, St 9, Phnom Penh, from 7 pm.
Note: Copies of Face Masks & Hand Gels will be available for purchase on the night for the special price of $5.