Cooped up by Covid-19, artists reveal heartfelt work

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Artist Morn Chear lost his hands in an electric accident and turned to art to inspire others like himself to persevere. He’s sold four out of five of his art pieces at Tomorrow is a New Day. AFP

After struggling to keep their heads above water for months while art galleries closed across the Kingdom due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Open Studio Cambodia artists have finally returned to the art scene with an exhibition titled Tomorrow is a New Day.

The title was inspired by a popular Cambodian phrase which preaches optimism and perseverance to overcome difficult times.

The pandemic put artists at Open Studio Cambodia and artists around the world in an unprecedented predicament. But they dealt with the unique situation calmly and collectively by hunkering down in their studio housed in a villa near Angkor Wat in Siem Reap province.

The result of their work is Tomorrow is a New Day which premiered in the capital last month at Factory Phnom Penh, which houses the FT Gallery.

Open Studio Cambodia founder and artist Lauren Iida says: “We are optimistic and hopeful that the situation will improve soon and Open Studio Cambodia is committed to the artists we work with.”

Iida and her artists say they are thankful for Factory Phnom Penh and the FT Gallery for showcasing their exhibition, which features work from five artists.

Kanha Hul is a photographer and digital artist who hails from Siem Reap. Lavy Long is from the capital and made a living in the ring as a boxer before becoming a watercolour artist.

Morn Chear is a double amputee block print artist from Kampot province and Van Chhovorn is a painter and sculptor from Battambang province.

Iida is a Japanese-American hand-cut paper artist from Seattle, Washington, US.

Tomorrow is a New Day opened on September 19 and will run until October 20.

It composed of 30 pieces of art featuring acrylic paintings, block print, hand-cut paper, interdisciplinary digital art, and watercolours.

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With many art galleries closed due to the pandemic, five artists hunkered down in a Siem Reap villa and dug deep to create 30 new pieces. Hong Menea

“The artwork in this exhibition features deeply personal work from many of the artists who have overcome physical disabilities, forced labour and enslavement, sexism and poverty,” Iida says.

Chear lost his hands in an electric shock but he hasn’t let it stop him from practising contemporary dance or making linocut block print art depicting his daily life.

Chear says: “Showing my art talent on stage and at exhibitions can help inspire people, especially those who are like me.” He has sold four out of his five pieces of art at the exhibition.

His peer Lavy used to spill blood and sweat in a boxing ring but was barely able to support his family.

He says: “These six watercolour artworks portray my melancholic life in the past as a poor professional boxer before I became an artist.”

Empowering emerging artists

The main purpose of Open Studio Cambodia is to create opportunities for emerging artists through mentorship, exhibition opportunities, access to high-quality art-making materials, and studio space at their villa in Siem Reap.

Iida says: “We work as a team, sharing skills and supporting each other in exhibitions and the development of our artwork.

“Each has used art as a powerful tool to heal, grow and express their valuable and unique points of view.”

Comprised of nine artists, Open Studio Cambodia provides marketing and domestic and international exhibition opportunities to its members and collaborates with a network of artists and arts organisations to promote the rising contemporary art scene in Cambodia as a whole.

Iida refers to Open Studio Cambodia as an “artist collective” rather than a “social enterprise”.

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Open Studio Cambodia, an art collective created to empower aspiring artists, also helps connect Cambodian artists to international markets. Hong Menea

“We support our artists and fund our charitable activities by offering contemporary art tours throughout the country year-round,” says Iida.

Iida has been in Cambodia for 12 years which makes her especially qualified to manage and curate meaningful cross-cultural tours.

“Unfortunately, Covid-19 has taken a big toll on the artists in the collective as they relied heavily on tourism and public events to sell their work,” Iida says.

“All nine of the artists we work with are solely dependent on their art sales to make a living, so the pandemic has seriously negatively affected their livelihoods.”

When art galleries temporarily closed, Chear continued to work, hoping to overcome the pandemic blow.

“If I cannot showcase and sell my artwork, I don’t know what else I can do,” says Chear, who will host a solo exhibition following Tomorrow is a New Day.

Future exhibitions

According to Iida, the artists will have a continued presence at Factory Phnom Penh, evolving their exhibitions to feature new work by emerging contemporary Cambodian artists through Open Studio Cambodia, including Chear’s upcoming solo exhibition.

She says: “We also will open a new exhibition on October 24 in the same place for Morn Chear’s block prints and painting.”

Entitled Metamorphosis, the exhibition will feature 26 original linoleum-cut block print pieces of art and acrylic paintings. They were created at Open Studio Cambodia’s villa, which relocated from Kampot to Siem Reap last year.

Iida says: “We also regularly hold events and art-making workshops in Siem Reap at our studio off National Road 6 and in the AIR Gallery powered by FT Gallery at Factory Phnom Penh.”

"We will continue to regularly activate the space and engage the community through art making workshops, speakers, and events for all ages.”

Open Studio Cambodia is also occasionally able to connect Cambodian artists with international exhibition opportunities such as their contemporary group exhibition in France this month.

“We’re having an exhibition in Paris from the October 9-21 in Paris with Galerie Lee, curated by Frank Vassal,” Iida says.

Back in the gallery at Factory Phnom Penh, seven of the 30 art pieces priced between $100 and $1,200 have already been sold.

To view the Tomorrow is a New Day exhibition, visit Factory Phnom Penh at 1159 National Road 2.