Grass Roots: The Overlooking of Phare Ponleu Selpak in Cambodia by Reaksmey Yean-George

The overlooking of Phare Ponleu Selpak in Cambodia

May 15, 2018 | By Art Republik

Group photo of Share Ponleu Selpak, 2018. Image courtesy Hiek Vila.

Phare Ponleu Selpak is an arts school in Battambang, Cambodia, founded by Bandaul Srey, Det Khuon, Lao Lon, Sareth Svay, and Vutha Tor. When I ask Svay what it means to be a co-founder, he says, “To be a founder of Phare means to be a founder of contemporary art in Cambodia.” This is a bold statement, but is it a baseless claim?

Group Photo with Sareth Svay, 2018. Image courtesy Peter Phoeng.

In 2013, the late Molyvann Vann, former Minister of Culture was quoted in the now defunct newspaper, ‘The Cambodia Daily’, saying, “Phnom Penh has been saved by the Japanese cooperation JICA, and Angkor Wat in Siem Reap has been saved by UNESCO with France and Japan.” Vann’s statement refers to the city urbanisation and the preservation of Cambodian cultural heritage, but it also touches on the larger and more complex picture of the reconstruction of Cambodia today: the protuberant role of non-governmental agencies, for better or worse, in developing the nation-state.

Photo of Lao Lon, 2018. Image courtesy Hiek Vila.

The 1991 Paris Peace Accord, which officially marked the end of warring conflict and Vietnamese occupation over Cambodia, not only reinstated peace and cleared the path for the repatriation of Cambodian refugees, but also provided pretext for an influx of non-governmental agencies into the state-building network. In the process of filling in the gap, where there was a lack of governmental attention, these agencies became active. The activeness is also true, to a significant extent, in a socio-cultural orbit: the advancing and reviving of Cambodian arts, as well as the development of contemporary art.  

Photo of Bandaul Srey, 2018. Image courtesy Hiek Vila.

Remaining in its state of infancy, the contemporary art scene is flourishing– with a number of artists receiving international recognition, including Svay himself – against the backdrop of the underdeveloped art ecosystem and infrastructure. There is a lack of art educational institutions, exhibition and performance venues, public funding, an art market, literary resources, and platforms for public and critical discourse and discussion such as arts journal and newspaper. The continued bourgeoning of the country’s creative impulse is in large part due to the efforts of non-governmental agencies such as the Reyum Institute, French Institute, Cambodian Living Arts, JavaArts, Bophana Centre, SaSa Bassac, and Phare.

Meaning “Brightness of the Art”, Phare Ponleu Selpak has its roots in Battambang, a city in the northwest that was established in 1994. It is now an interdisciplinary arts school offering courses in both performing arts (circus, theatre, music, and dance), and visual and applied arts (animation, graphic design, drawing and painting). The school also houses a kindergarten, a children’s development centre, and a state educational programme (primary to high school). In total, Phare welcomes approximately one thousand students daily.

Photo of Vutha Tor, 2018. Image courtesy Hiek Vila.

Vutha Tor, a co-founder and an artist himself, notes that it is his teacher, French national Véronique Decrop, who united the co-founders of Phare. “She established the centre to provide us with a shelter and a platform, where we, the children of refugees, could develop our skills and achieve our dreams,” says Tor.

Tor is referring to the art therapy classes that Decrop offered to Phare’s future founders at the Site Two refugee camp on the Cambodian-Thai border between 1986 and 1992. She left a lasting legacy. In a special issue of ‘Udaya, Journal of Khmer Study’ in 2014, Decrop was quoted to have said: “After passing the torch to the local team composed of my former students from the camps, and after nine years abroad, I returned to Cambodia. The centre had grown, developed, its activities had multiplied, and the artistic output was strong. It was like a big beating heart, attracting hope and energy, shining upon the community and beyond.”  

Photo of Det Kuon, 2018. Image courtesy Hiek Vila.

Phare has been instrumental in developing the arts scene in Cambodia. “The school has offered opportunities to its students, and some of them are now practicing artists, and contributing to the society through their works and exhibitions” says Svay.  Here, I believe Svay refers to artists such as Robit Pen, Cheanich Nov, Sokuntevy Oeur, Pheary Heak, to name a few, and also theatre and circus performers. Famous for its modern-theatrical circus performances, Phare and its circus are major tourist attractions in Battambang and Siem Reap.   

At the same time, discussion of Cambodia’s contemporary art scene has been focused on consecrating Phnom Penh as an epicentre and in doing so, removing Phare and its home, Battambang, from the art radar. Khoun, a co-founder and performing arts director, argues, “We can say it is the presence of Phare that keeps the reputation of Battambang as a cultural centre.” However, Tor contends, “I don’t want to brag about our province, for we can’t say without Phare there is no art since the province has always been a creative one, but our presence must push it a little further.”  

While it is difficult to measure the importance of Phare to the Cambodian contemporary art scene, there is no doubt that it has made steady and significant contributions to developing it and will continue to do so for years to come.

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This article was written by Reaksmey Yean-George for Art Republik 18.

This is part of ‘Better Together’, a series of conversations about how people have banded together in innovative ways to create, exhibit, teach, discuss and archive art in Southeast Asia, brought to you by ART REPUBLIK both online and in print.

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