Phnom Penh’s Arts Scene Is Small, Mighty, and Rooted in Heritage

By Cynthia Rosenfeld  •  May 20, 2019

One of the city’s top curators examines the unique creative movement underway in the Cambodian capital.

“We are small scene,” admits curator Erin Gleeson of Phnom Penh’s arts community. “But we maintain a lot of commitment and passion.” Born in America, Gleeson moved to Cambodia on a Fulbright scholarship in 2002, and witnessed first-hand as a modern arts community emerged in a post-genocide society. Connecting with young, forward-looking Cambodians, she gained entrée into the capital’s small, scattered milieu of artists and patrons. It was then that she learned how to “curate in the present while remaining rooted in history.” In the years since, Gleeson has played a vital curatorial role in the city, forging connections between Cambodian artists and international museums, such as the Guggenheim in New York City, Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, the Singapore Art Museum, and the Jeu de Paume in Paris.

“Intimate scale at home, plus increasing awareness and support outside of Cambodia, is helping to create a vibrant balance for many artists here.” —Erin Gleeson


But it’s been the on-the-ground scene here that’s attracted her focus during her 17-year-stint in Phnom Penh (she recently moved back to the States). “These micro-spaces may not immediately impress visitors expecting a familiar gallery environment,” she explains. “Yet they truthfully represent the development of arts in Cambodia, where organized funding structures have yet to step in and support the field.” Artists here, she explains, draw strength and support from committed curators, researchers, and, most importantly, from one another. They frequently collaborate with filmmakers, architects, choreographers, and craftspeople to create inter-disciplinary works. “This intimate scale at home, plus increasing awareness and support outside of Cambodia, is helping to create a vibrant balance for many artists here.” Here, she shares how visitors can discover it for themselves.

The Avant-Garde

Many young Cambodian artists have their first solo exhibition at Sa Sa Art Projects, founded in 2010 as the only not-for-profit, artist-run space in Phnom Penh dedicated to experimental art. Artistic director and co-founder Vuth Lyno curates exhibitions, events, and artist-in-residency programs that encourage new talents to explore their creativity without the pressure or structure required in a more formal setting. Visitors might see sculptural works, photography, prints, paintings or mixed-media installations, all from rising stars in the local scene. One recent favorite of Gleeson’s: painter Pen Robit (pictured above), who uses both figurative and abstract techniques to explore the social realities of Cambodia today. He’s set to show in Singapore after a recent exhibition in Vancouver. For more experimental works, Gleeson is watching Kon Len Khnhom, a tiny space near the Toul Sleng Genocide Museum whose name translates to “My Place.” Founded by well-connected arts manager Meta Moeng, it attracts local and visiting artists and regularly hosts lectures, residencies, and monthly market events.

The Old Guard

Gleeson also recommends established addresses, like The French Institute of Cambodia, whose museum-like exhibition space showcases prominent Cambodian and international artists with solo exhibitions. Recent examples include sculptor Sopheap Pich, whose works in rattan have been shown at New York’s Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Venice Biennale; and architect-turned-painter-turned-sculptor Sothea Thang, whose latest series involves vivid iron and hemp installations. Gleeson returns regularly to the National Museum of Cambodia, five blocks east, especially to see its gallery of pre-Angkorian Buddhas, with sculptures dating to the 6th century. “They are not only museum objects,” Gleeson explains. “Many visitors honor these statues with offerings and prayers, reflecting their original ritual purpose.”

The Art-Forward Café

Given the city’s embryonic gallery scene, you’ll find works by up-and-coming artists in unexpected places. Gleeson advises dropping by multi-purpose spots like Java Creative Café, near the Independence Monument. The full-service restaurant has been exhibiting contemporary art—from sketches by local graphic novelists to portraiture—and hosting lectures and poetry nights for 19 years. Java’s new Counterspace Theater hosts a regular program of music, poetry, film screenings, and dance, including weekly performances by the internationally renowned classical Khmer dance troupe Prumsodun Ok & Natyarasa.

The Film Scene

Cambodia’s film scene has been making waves of late. The production collective Anti-Archivefounded by directors Davy Chou, Kavich Neang, and Steve Chen is gaining major international credibility, with films regularly winning praise on the festival circuit. Chou’s Diamond Island won the SACD prize at Cannes in 2016. Meanwhile, award-winning documentary director Rithy Panh, who has helmed more than 20 films since the 1980s, teamed up with Angelina Jolie for Netflix’s Golden Globe–nominated First They Killed My Father.

Visitors can get a glimpse of what’s next at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, the film archive and cinema founded by Panh in 2006. Its weekly film screenings pull from the Center’s extensive archives of Cambodian films as well as current releases from local filmmakers—including Anti-Archive. Films are always presented with English subtitles and directors often attend Q&A sessions. One of Gleeson’s recent favorites that screened there: A Million Years, produced by Anti-Archive and directed by Danech San.

The Architecture

Culture lovers will also want to explore Phnom Penh’s fascinating architecture, assures Gleeson. Khmer Architecture Tours, founded by some of her earliest acquaintances in Phnom Penh, is now one of her top local recommendations. Its architect-led tours showcase the work of influential Cambodian modernist and urban planner Vann Molyvann, whose mid-20th century work is based in part on Angkorian spatial and environmental principles. Highlights for Gleeson include the Institute of Foreign Languages, for its circular library and detached pod classrooms, and the Olympic Stadium, which she suggests visiting in the evening. “This venerable public icon comes alive with aerobics classes, food vendors, joggers, teenage lovers, kite-flyers, footballers, and families. Light pours in from all directions as the sun sets. I love it!”

Bonus: The Must-Visit Market

Once you’ve had your arts fix, Gleeson recommends a visit to the cacophonous Orussey Market. Amidst Phnom Penh’s recent hyper-speed growth, she comes here to marvel at “the comingling of everything, including time. Where freshly made soy milk with pandan leaf is sold, so are the latest imported energy drinks.” Her favorite spot: the market’s southeast corner, off Monivong Boulevard, where stalls hawk a riotous tumble of hand-woven natural grass baskets, up-cycled jersey rugs, and recycled plastic carrier bags. For Gleeson, Phnom Penh is made up of “these places that may be less visible yet are constant and integral to local culture.”

Discover A Sense of Phnom Penh through Art

The gallery inside Rosewood Phnom Penh—Rosewood’s first ever purpose-built commercial art gallery—has held several exhibits curated by Gleeson. “I’m seeing it foster new audiences and relationships,” she says of the space, connecting local artists with a global audience. “Already it’s serving as a model of private-sector support for the arts here in Phnom Penh, which is so valuable.”

Rosewood Phnom Penh

The Details

Java Creative Café and Counterspace Theater: #50, Street 468; +855 77-873-929

Sa Sa Art Projects: #47, Street 350 (off Street 95); +855 92-961-974

Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center: 64 Oknha Men Street; +855 23-992-174

Kon Len Khnhom: #11, Street 360; +855 12-768-672

The French Institute of Cambodia: 218 Keo Chea; +855 23-985-611

National Museum of Cambodia: Street 13; 855 23-217-643

Institute of Foreign Languages: Russian Federation Boulevard; +855 23-885-419

Olympic Stadium: Charles de Gaulle Boulevard

Orussey Market: Oknha Tep Phan Street; +855 85-833-315

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Written By: Cynthia Rosenfeld


Locations: Phnom Penh

See more: Art & Culture

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