Category Archives: Art

Season of Cambodia. Ancient Traditions and Modern Artists


The cultural festival Season of Cambodia introduces New York City to the ancient arts of a Southeast Asian kingdom and to its contemporary artists working in visual arts, dance, theater and performance art. This April and May, you can get a taste of Cambodia in more than 30 favorite cultural spots around the city, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to Le Poisson Rouge.

The Kingdom of Cambodia is known for the greatest architectural wonder of Southeast Asia—the temples of Angkor Wat—and for one of the most horrific periods of civil war and genocide in modern times, the five-year reign of the Khmer Rouge (1974-79) during which nearly a quarter of the population perished. Nearly 90 percent of the country’s artists and intellectuals were purposefully persecuted and killed. Today, the country has less than two times the number of New York City residents and half the population is less than 25 years old.

The festival not only celebrates Cambodia’s art with exhibits and performances, but using talks and symposiums, examines the role art and culture plays in the social, economic and emotional rebuilding of a post-conflict nation. The festival’s leading artists include visual artist Sopheap Pich, composers Him Sophyand Chinary Ung, choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, Amrita Performing Arts and the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.

Watch Season of Cambodia on PBS. See more from NYC-ARTS.

Traditional elements of Cambodian art include dancing deities, Buddhist tales and mythological Hindu accounts of wars and creation, and will be brought to life in venues across New York City in the form of installations, puppet theater and performances.

Season of Cambodia is an initiative of Cambodian Living Arts, an NGO based in Pehnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. Presenting partners include museums, performing arts centers and universities of New York City.

Click here to view all Season of Cambodia events.

Dancing Well Is the Best Revenge


Published: April 4, 2013

IN the beginning warring gods and demons churned the cosmic ocean, and celestial dancers called apsaras emerged from the froth. That’s one story about Cambodian dance, its origin myth. This tale is preserved in bas-reliefs on the monumental temples of Angkor, created (like the dance) during the Khmer Empire (802-1431), left to become ruins during centuries of vassalage and rediscovered in the 19th and 20th centuries as emblems, first of royal pride and then of national identity.

Khvay Samnang

The Khmer Arts Ensemble in “A Bend in the River.”

Andres Jiras

The Royal Ballet of Cambodia’s “Legend of Apsara Mera.”

Courtesy of the archives of HRH Princess Norodom Buppha Devi

Princess Norodom Buppha Devi.

James Wasserman/SE Globe

A class in traditional dance at the Khmer Arts Academy in Takmao, Cambodia.

Courtesy of the archives of HRH Princess Norodom Buppha Devi

The Royal Ballet about 1906, in costumes that are brocaded and bejeweled. They seem to wear temples on their heads.

The Royal Ballet about 1906, in costumes that are brocaded and bejeweled. They seem to wear temples on their heads.
Another story begins in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge, radical Communists, took over Cambodia and restarted the calendar at Year Zero. In the four years before they were ousted by the Vietnamese as much as a quarter of the population perished through starvation, forced labor and murder. Dancers, as symbols of the decadent past, were among those most at risk. According to Toni Shapiro-Phim, a dance ethnologist at Bryn Mawr College who specializes in Southeast Asian dance, only an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the royal dancers survived — about two dozen people who reconstructed what they could of an oral tradition and taught it to new generations.

Neither of these stories is the central one advanced by Season of Cambodia, a festival of Cambodian culture taking place around New York in April and May. Initiated by the grass-roots organization Cambodian Living Arts, the festival combines dance performances, films, visual art exhibitions, concerts, classes and discussions. It seeks to shift attention from Angkor and the Killing Fields to contemporary Cambodian art.

But this telling of the present inevitably contains remnants of the past. “The Legend of Apsara Mera,” which the Royal Ballet of Cambodia is presenting at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (May 2 to 4), combines the Hindu tale of the apsaras rising from a sea of milk with a love story of an apsara and a foreign prince that is Cambodia’s foundation myth.

The Royal Ballet embodies Cambodian classical style: spiritual, serene, very much as if those temple bas-reliefs had come to slow life. Knees bend softly in gliding walks. Toes curl up and fingers bow back toward wrists with the elegance of flora in the wind. Costumes are resplendent, brocaded, bejeweled. The dancers seem to wear temples on their heads. Through stylized mime, the dances recount myths.

“The Legend of Apsara Mera” was choreographed by no less than a princess, Norodom Buppha Devi, 70, who was the Royal Ballet’s prima ballerina in the 1960s and lived in exile from 1970 to 1991. As the country’s culture minister from 1999 to 2004 she successfully lobbied to have Unesco place Cambodian classical dance on its register of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Still, the dance “is always evolving,” she said via e-mail in French. “Each generation of teachers transmits its own style and creations.” The Apsara Dance, a set piece that looks timeless, was created, Ms. Buppha Devi said, by her grandmother, Queen Sisowath Kossomak, in 1962. (Other dancers date the piece’s creation to the late 1950s. A 1965 film of it, which can be found on YouTube, stars the stunning princess.)

The last time that the Royal Ballet came to Brooklyn was for its United States debut in 1971. Then it was called the Classical Khmer Ballet; Cambodia had become a republic the year before. At the Joyce Theater in 1990, when Cambodia was still under Vietnamese control, it performed as the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia, and the story was about survival but also about the dancers who defected. (Dancers from the Royal University of Fine Arts performed at the Joyce in 2001 and 2005 as well.)

Now the name is Royal again, but the company and the art are, in the words of Princess Buppha Devi “still in a fragile state.” The Royal University of Fine Arts, where almost all the dancers train, lost its majestic building a few years ago in a government sell-off. The ballet has become more independent from the Culture Ministry, which means less supervision but also less support.

Independence from the state is the trend. The Khmer Arts Ensemble, which is bringing “A Bend in the River” to the Joyce (Tuesday to April 14), formed as a nongovernmental organization outside the capital, Phnom Penh, in 2007. Its artistic director, Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, 46, was in the first class to train at the School of Fine Arts after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge. She danced with the Royal Ballet and was part of its visit to the Joyce in 1990.

After she moved to Long Beach, Calif., in 1991, she began to apply Cambodian classical technique to contemporary work. Eventually she returned to Cambodia, experimenting with the state system before forming her own ensemble. Rather than renouncing or abandoning classicism, Ms. Shapiro’s choreography extends it. Rigorously maintaining classical postures and arm and hand positions, her dancers tilt a little further to express intimacy. They might even tangle or intertwine. In “A Bend in the River” classical bodies undulate to convey the motion of a crocodile.

The new dance innovates by incorporating materials from contemporary art. The cast moves under and on top of rattan crocodiles by the sculptor Sopheap Pich, whose work is also exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Swirling water is suggested by a set of IV tubing. The musician Him Sophy has composed a new score for a Pinpeat ensemble, usually reserved for ceremonies.

Ms. Shapiro’s troupe has won acclaim in Europe and America and has tackled “Othello” and “The Magic Flute.” “A Bend in the River” is about a female crocodile that takes revenge on a male crocodile that ate her family. It’s an old fable, but the resonances are more recent. Ms. Shapiro, who was 8 in 1975, lost her home, her father and her two brothers because of the Khmer Rouge. The female crocodile’s anger is her own.

And not just hers. In a Skype interview Ms. Shapiro recalled when her teacher, 82 at the time, watched Khmer Arts Ensemble dancers rehearse a classical piece. “She started to cry and yell out in anger, cursing the Khmer Rouge,” Ms. Shapiro recalled. “She said: ‘When I watch your students, I see my friends. They took all my friends.’ ”

“For me,” Ms. Shapiro said, “the Khmer Rouge tried to destroy classical dance and Cambodia, but they failed. We revived it. This is revenge.”

Chankethya Chey, who will dance her solo “My Mother and I” as part of the Amrita Performing Arts program at Abrons Arts Center (April 18 to 19), was born in 1985. From the age of 5 she studied classical dance. She trained at the Royal University. She performed with the Royal Ballet. But because of Amrita Performing Arts, a nongovernmental organization started in 2003 to promote contemporary work, she was also introduced to international choreographers and invited to perform abroad.

And then she became a choreographer herself. “My Mother and I” is based in classical vocabulary but adds talking, singing and electric guitar to express the struggles of Ms. Chey’s generation. Money is a problem, she said in a Skype interview, as is finding places to present her work. But the greatest challenge, she insisted, is to hold onto the past while moving into the future.

“It’s so easy to copy,” she said. “I don’t want to be a contemporary artist from Europe or America. I want to be Cambodian.”

For Phloeun Prim, the executive director of Cambodia Living Arts, the festival’s presenter, his organization has a purpose beyond changing world perception: to nurture artists Ms. Chey’s age and younger. Half of Cambodia’s population is under 25, Mr. Prim said, as are almost all the dancers participating in “Season of Cambodia.”

“Ten or 20 years from now will every story about Cambodian arts still start with the Killing Fields?” he asked.

Living Arts City Colloquium – Art and Urbanism in Phnom Phen and New York

As part of the Season of Cambodia and Parsons the New School for Design Living Arts City initiative I have the opportunity to present some of the work from the Our City Festival. See below:



As part of Season of Cambodia, a multi-disciplinary arts festival taking place this spring in New York City, the School of Constructed Environments at Parsons The New School for Design presents a two-day colloquiumexploring the interconnectedness of creativity, urban ecology and community. The event provides a window into an ongoing exchange between designers, curators, architects, planners, and social researchers from Phnom Penh and New York.


April 6

6:30 PM-9:00 PM
Keynote Lecture and Panel Discussion
Free registration here
Joel Towers, Executive Dean, Parsons The New School for Design
Introduction to Cambodian Living Arts:
Arn Chorn-Pond, Founder, Cambodian Living Arts
John Burt, Founding Board Chair Emeritus, Cambodian Living Arts, and Chairman, Season of CambodiaIntroduction to Season of Cambodia:
Phloeun Prim, CEO, Season of Cambodia, Executive Director of Cambodian Living Arts
Elena ParkSeason of Cambodia, Senior Festival Advisor

Keynote Address:
Refuge, Diaspora and Return: Cosmopolitan Phnom Penh
William Greaves, Director of Vann Molyvann Project

Panel Discussion:
Arts and Urban Development in New York and Phnom Penh

William Morrish, Professor of Urban Ecology, Parsons The New School for Design
Brian McGrath, Research Chair in Urban Design, Parsons The New School for Design
Fred Frumberg, Cambodia Line Producer, Executive Director, Amrita Performing Arts
Erin GleesonSeason of Cambodia Visual Art Program Co-Curator, and Artistic Director, SaSa Bassac

Full event info here: 

Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Auditorium, Sheila C. Johnson Design Center – Parsons The New School for Design, 66 Fifth Avenue, New York

April 7

10:00 AM-5:00 PM
Full-day Colloquium in Three Acts
Free registration hereScholars, researchers, students, arts organizers, artists, policymakers, urbanists and designers from both New York and Cambodia will participate in a series of workshops and dialogues focused on how creativity fuels cities and how development and commodification dampens art production. This will include conversations on the role of public art, festivals, cultural district formation, and the distribution of arts and of artists in cities and towns; and will address such issues such as design, media, ecology, and youth development.

10:00 AM – Act 1:
Geo-body of the Living Arts City 

Icebreaking Workshop
Moderated by WIlliam Morrish and Irene Leung

1:00 PM – Act  2:
The Production of Space in the Living Arts City
Panel Discussion
Moderated by Radhika Subramaniam
Rescue Archeology: Documents of Performance Art from Phnom Penh

Film screening Leeza Ahmady and Erin Gleeson
Our City Festival: Cultivating Communities
Presentation Shelby Doyle3:00 PM – Act 3:
Re-envisioning the City through Art and Urban Community

Living Arts District Workshop

Speakers: Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina, andVuth Lyno
Moderated by Brian McGrathFull event info here: 

Theresa Lang Community and Student Center, Arnhold Hall – The New School, 55 West 13th Street, 2nd Floor, New York

Photo credit: Sareth Svay, Mon Boulet, 2011, Performance, Courtesy the artist

Mam Sonando to be freed


MG 9173

Beehive Radio station owner Mam Sonando during his hearing at the appeal court in Phnom Penh last week. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

EMBATTLED independent radio station owner Mam Sonando will be released Saturday – just eight months after his arrest on insurrection charges – after the Appeal Court substantially reduced a 20-year sentence widely labeled as politically motivated.

At the prosecutor’s request, judges dropped the strongest charge against Sonando and replaced it with a lesser forestry-related crime. His sentence was reduced to five years, then suspended to eight months, Judge Khun Leang said at a Thursday morning verdict announcement.

Two other men who were convicted alongside Sonando – Chan Sovann and Touch Rin – and sentenced to three and five years, respectively, also saw their sentences reduced and will be released Saturday.

In October, the trio were sentenced for stoking a so-called secessionist movement in Kratie province – a claim used by the government to justify a violent mass eviction last May that saw a 14-year-old girl shot dead by police. Rights groups and legal monitors have noted that no credible evidence had ever been presented suggesting such a movement existed, let alone that Sonando masterminded it. Among the critics of the conviction were US President Barack Obama, who raised the case, by name, with Prime Minister Hun Sen during his visit last year.

Outside the Appeal Court gates yesterday, hundreds of Sonando’s supporters amassed, cheering as news of the verdict trickled out the courtroom.

A smiling Sonando flashed the victory sign at reporters as he was escorted to a police van.

“I won’t speak now as I’m not yet free, but come see me in Kien Svay,” he said, referring to his home that doubles as the headquarters of Beehive radio station.

Amnesty International, which labeled Sonando a prisoner of conscience, called the release a positive step “with caveats.”

“There are of course concerns. Mam Sonando should never have been in prison in the first place, the original charges – and indeed the new charges – again seem completely baseless,” said Cambodia researcher Rupert Abbott. “Lets hope this represents a shifting of what we’ve seen in Cambodia, where we’ve seen this assault on freedom of expression; lets hope we see that halt.”

New York festival opens doors but draws ire from local artists


Last Updated on 05 March 2013
By Claire Knox
130305 17b

Artist Reaksmey Yean has been vocal in his criticism of the artist selection process for Seasons of Cambodia. Photograph: Alexander Crook/Phnom Penh Post

A FEW years ago, Leang Seckon, artist and graduate of Royal University of Fine Arts, painted by the shores of Boeung Kak lake in a ramshackle, wooden studio. For the month of April, his studio will be the Bronx, New York City.

The mixed-media artist has garnered critical acclaim over the past decade for his kaleidoscopic collages, which have shown in London, Singapore, Myanmar, China and more.

This year’s residency at the Bronx Museum comes as part of the highly anticipated Seasons of Cambodia (SOC) festival in its visual arts program – perhaps the biggest ever international celebration of Cambodian arts.

Throughout April and May, over 125 Cambodian artists – traditional Khmer and contemporary dancers, film-makers, performance artists, musicians, sculptors and photographers – will fly to New York City for the festival.

On February 23, Phnom Penh-based artist Sopheap Pich’s intricate scultptures were unveiled in a solo exhibition, Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich, at the esteemed Fifth Avenue space the Metropolitan Museum  of Art – part of the museum’s contribution to SOC – running until mid-June.

The artist will also have exhibitions at Tyler Rollins Fine Art and the World Financial Centre’s Winter Garden, while 32-year-old Cambodian Vandy Rattana’s affecting, and applauded, series of photographs and video, Bomb Ponds, which explored the country’s violent past through its landscape, opened in an exhibition at New York’s Asia Society Museum just over a week ago.

A “historical inquiry” symposium – a one day academic forum with renowned scholars, curators, and artists exploring Cambodian contemporary art, along with other residencies and open studio days with emerging Khmer artists shape the rest of the visual arts program.

The residencies, all running for two months, except for Seckon’s, are the  highlight of the  visual-arts program for co-curator Erin Gleeson, artistic director of Phnom Penh’s white, minimalist art space Sa Sa Bassac and New York- based program director Leeza Ahmady, a commended independent art curator, part of the dOCUMENTA team in Germany and a specialist in the art of Central Asia.

Gleeson, who has curated more than 40 exhibitions with Cambodian artists over her 10 years in the country, said it was critical to have a “process-based” festival.

“A lot of people are asking, why aren’t we having a big exhibition … but I think if that were to happen work is put up against other work and the equation is reviewed as a curatorial equation.

“We were very much shaped and inspired by our partners in New York. The very few site-specific installations were the artists they wanted to work with … So the basis is very much the residencies.”

However, many in the local arts community have, over the festivals three-year development, criticised the visual-arts program and the curatorial process, suggesting the selection process was biased and poorly communicated to artists outside of the capital. There was too much emphasis on photography, they have argued.

On Saturday, dozens of artists, SOC, Cambodia Living Arts (CLA) − the lead partner and sponsor of the festival − staff and curators gathered at a “community meeting” arranged by CLA to alleviate simmering tensions.

Reaksmey Yean, a prominent performance artist, argued that eight of the 12 artists selected are affiliated with Sa Sa Bassac and painters, particularly young artists from the arts hub of Battambang, were excluded.

A group of 30 artists had signed a letter in protest of the selection process, according to Yean.

“At the meeting we were shown a chart of the selection process … Nowhere on that was a list of names she may have put forward. There were no other names than the ones selected in residence. We want to know who she put forward. I’m not angry at all, I just want things to be fair,” he said.

“I don’t want to destroy the program of SOC, I respect it very much. It is so important to make Cambodia visible…but for me I don’t think an artist has to be educated in Europe or America … The point is, a curator attached to a gallery cannot be unbiased.”

Battambang painter Robit Pen said he had only found out about SOC after a press release was issued notifying of the final selection.

“I don’t think I have enough credentials to go yet, but communication should have been much better. You can’t call it visual arts either when there are no painters.”

His fellow Battambang painter Chov Theanly, agrees. “We didn’t really know anything about the selection. Nobody visted my studio. It’s OK, the guys going are great. They do represent Cambodia.  I don’t want to make them feel bad. I’d like to say good luck to them,” he said.

Cambodian-born, American-raised artist Anida Yoeu Ali, a curator in the festival’s diaspora panel, said the visual arts selection should have been broader.

“It’s a little bit limiting because it’s a very specific group that does not show diversity and range of educational background, the true nuances of the contemporary art scene,” she said.

Gallery curators have also expressed concern. Kate O’Hara, curator at Romeet Gallery, said: “The artists selected are all very interesting and engaging. However, whether the curatorial proposal is representative of contemporary Cambodia art now, whether previously seen or unseen in the international landscape before, is what I question.”

Dana Langlois, Director at Jafe Café and Gallery, was involved in the initial planning stages of the festival but left because she was “concerned also about the issue of conflict of interest” and “not comfortable with some of the processes”.

“What upsets me is the process itself, the lack of transparency and communication… New York City is far away and inaccessible to most, making many in the arts community feel powerless and frustrated in this process.”

Gleeson stands by her and Ahmady’s selections  and the curatorial process. She said “delegations” of these institutions had travelled around Cambodia throughout the process.

“I do not work with painters … The truth is … photography is one of the strongest practices here.”

She said with a small, developing arts community came overlaping roles, and that it would be hard for someone not attached to a Cambodian gallery or space to curate.

Phloeun Prim, CEO of SOC, and executive director of CLA said: “There was a need to connect with the community, there were a lot of questions unanswered. Clearly a learning process for us, more about communication, engaging, how we can be more inclusive in the process … This is the first time, especially with the visual arts program, we have learnt about this.”

Season of Cambodia

Another plug for the upcoming festival in New York. Amazing things happening – check out the calendar of events on the website: Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.





Stop Evictions, Gangnam Style

Dancing out some human rights.

Urban Air

Our City Festival in Phnom Penh next year? Source:


Urban Air transforms existing urban billboards into living, suspended bamboo gardens. Embedded with intelligent technology, Urban Air becomes a global node — an open space in the urban skyline. An artwork, symbol, and instrument for a green future. Urban Air has been designed, engineered, and has secured the billboards to carry the flagship project. With your help, Urban Air will be towering above the LA freeways to ring in the new year. The vision doesn’t stop there. Upon a successful launch, it’s our plan and intention to transform the steel and wood of outdoor advertising to the infrastructure of urban sustainability in cities around the globe — actively, publicly, and collectively generating a green global future. This first one is the Kickstarter!

Waterways go abstract

Source: Phnom Penh Post

Monday, 22 October 2012
Claire Knox

Kampong Phluk, near Siem Reap, captured in Lim Sokchanlina’s photograph Rising Tonle Sap 1, 2012. Photograph courtesy of the artist and Sa Sa Bassac

Rising Tonle Sap 4, Lim Sokchanlina’s portrait of the Siem Reap tourist attraction Kampong Phluk and its flooded forest, is an arresting one. Silhouettes of mangrove trees melt into tawny waters and flicks of tangerine reflect off large cubes of melting ice in the foreground.

The Phnom Penh-based artist’s photograph is part of a new exhibition that aims to provoke local discussion on climate change and the fate of Cambodia’s wide waterways.

The ice blocks – dissolving into fishing communities and important ecosystems – represent global warming, melting ice caps and last year’s devastating floods.

The Mekong, the Tonle Sap, the Red River, in Vietnam’s north, and Thailand’s Ping River — integral for centuries of transport, food production, energy supply and dynamic ecosystems — are widely acknowledged to be in grave danger because of economic exploitation, development and climate change.

The rivers now form the backdrop for Riverscapes In Flux, a regional exhibition sponsored by the Vietnam-based Goethe   Institut that opened in the capital’s Sa Sa Bassac galley on Thursday.

Three Cambodian artists are exhibiting in the display: photographer Sokchanlina; sculptor and artist Than Sok with an installation of scarecrows (metaphors for his family when they were stuck for months on their roof on the Tonle Sap); and photographer/audio artist Vuth Lyno.

Each spent time living on the Tonle Sap — a river and lake distinctive as the only waterway on earth with the ability to reverse directions every year, coerced by the monsoonal Mekong.

Thai video and installation artist Sutthirat Supaparinya and Vietnamese artists Luong Hue Trinh and Phan Thao Nguyen round out the show.

Nguyen’s stark film blurs the boundaries between documentary and more abstract art. It juxtaposes the idyllic imagery of the Mekong Delta with its sterile, smelly, industrial catfish factories.

Budget restraints have restricted the project to six artists — it showcased 17 in Bangkok, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh — but the white, minimalist cubic sphere of Phnom Penh’s Sa Sa Bassac gallery is a good size and milieu.

Artistic director and Sa Sa Bassac co-founder Erin Gleeson said she had been hesitant to base an exhibition on a broad theme such as climate change, but had a change of heart after witnessing the tragic effects of the 2011 floods.

“We’ve been really surprised at the different reflections on one theme, which can often be limiting,” she says.

Gleeson said it was important to look at the waterways of South East Asia in a different medium.

“The Mekong River Commission has to work with five countries; it must be so complicated, and you think of all the technical reports we read about damming and pollution and so on.

“So I think it’s important to look at the river in a different space, to be able to look at the river and reflect on it in a different way… perhaps this platform can provoke something else than what we read in media reports,” she said.

Sokachanlina, who spent four months living on the Tonle Sap with fishing communities, talking to them about climate change, said he had been interested in the beauty of placing the 80kg shards of ice in a landscape and watching the landscape morph into something else as the ice melted.

“I went to all these places and looked at darkness, reflections, light coming through the trees. I want this to provoke discussion among Khmer people, and that our actions are contributing to these great disasters.”

Riverscapes In Flux runs until November 11 at Sa Sa Bassac, second floor, #18 Sothearos Blvd, Phnom Penh.

To contact the reporter on this story: Claire Knox at