Seminar on Visualizing a New Kampuchea: Developing a Post Khmer Rouge National Art Identity

Ms Christine Ege addressed the creation of a new Cambodian identity, and how artists chose to represent or reject what has traditionally or politically been defined as “Cambodian”.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017 – The Regional Social and Cultural Studies (RSCS) programme had the pleasure of hosting Ms Christine Ege, Director of the Institute for Executive, Professional, and Community Education and Head of the Digital Arts and Design department at Zaman University, Phnom Penh. Ms Ege’s presentation was titled “Visualising a New Kampuchea: Developing a post-Khmer Rouge National Art Identity”. Fifteen participants from local institutions, museums and art centers, as well as the general public attended the talk.

Dr Benjamin Low chairing the seminar (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Ms Ege described the art scene in Cambodia, distinguishing between Cambodian artists and designers––in particular, “established” artists (those born in the 1970s during the Khmer Rouge) and younger emerging artists with very little direct connection with the Khmer Rouge. She addressed the creation of a new Cambodian identity, and how artists chose to represent or reject what has traditionally or politically been defined as “Cambodian”.

The influence of Khmer identity and history, with depictions of Angkor era temples, has been seared into national consciousness and translated to numerous works by Cambodian artists. Social issues of class, wealth disparity, and the rural-urban divide, as well as politics also feature as common themes discussed and depicted in artworks.

The Artists Code of Ethics by the country’s Ministry of Culture was highlighted as an instrument in defining acceptable art production, and these codes may potentially be used to crack down on artists who are outwardly critical of the government. Ms Ege also discussed how the introduction and subsequent reformulation of this code of ethics legitimise gender inequality through the invocation of societal morality or moral dignity.

Ms Ege argued that the future of Cambodia’s art and artistic expression is in a state of flux and young artists are increasingly reacting to moral ambiguity on one hand but also state control on the other, in defining their art and practice in a rapidly changing Cambodian society. She suggested that many issues must be addressed on a national level to secure a future for the arts in the country, including governmental funding of arts institutions and artists, advancement of arts education, expansion in the local art market, and altering public perceptions to, in particular, contemporary forms of art.

Ms Christine Ege answering questions from the participants (Source: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The seminar attracted a lively discussion on various topics such as how to get younger up-and-coming artists more active in the local market, the scarcity of funding for the visual arts, the self-censorship implications of the recent Artists Code of Conduct, the lack of dialogue between older established artists and the younger ones, and the accreditation of art education in the country.