Tony Francis spends most of his days coming up with innovative ways to catapult Cambodia’s bubbling urban art scene into international realms. Words by Marissa Carruthers, photo by Enric Català.

Hailing from London, Francis became inspired by the country’s burgeoning scene when he moved to Siem Reap two years ago after a stint in Thailand.

“I really started to notice the high quality of work coming through and quite a few big names coming to Cambodia doing big pieces,” he says. “I really started to pay attention.”

A year ago, he came to Phnom Penh to connect with some of the artists spearheading the scene, also scouring the streets for art and trying to locate a gallery to take the next step in his mission.

“Street art is no more a back-alley thing, it’s an exciting form of contemporary art that is now widely accepted across the world,” he says. “It’s not just an art movement, it’s a social movement.”

While artists such as Lisa Mam and Peap Tarr, Chifumi and Theo Vallier have been driving the scene for the last few years, spawning a new generation of local graffiti artists, Francis wants to give them the international recognition. To provide them with this platform, at the end of March he opened KBach Gallery on Street 178.

With four planned exhibitions a year, featuring pieces from those who live in Cambodia or who have contributed to the scene, Francis plans to primarily sell the art to London, New York, Paris and LA, netting between $5,000 and $10,000 per piece – and so far, it’s going well.

“I’m selling to mature markets and giving the artists the exposure they deserve, and the value they deserve,” he says.

The opening exhibit, Rebirth, features work from artists including FONKi, who was born in France to Cambodian parents before moving to Montreal, and founder of Colombian street art movement Animal Power Culture, Stinkfish, whose work can be found in the Kingdom.

Having spent the last few months getting the gallery finished on time, when Rebirth closes on May 5, he will start organising the next exhibit, Celebration, featuring six Columbian artists. This will open in July.

Working on a local level, Francis has teamed up with the likes of Chifumi and Vallier to promote the street art scene. “We want to help people associate street art with vibrancy and beauty, colour and tradition, as opposed to vandals and graffiti.”

They are also working with schools and organisations that want a wall spruced up by offering the skills of local and visiting international artists for free. “That way we get a wall to paint that is legal, while also giving the artists somewhere to work. ”

With the third Cambodian Urban Arts Festival planned for December, Francis has jumped on board as a sponsor and co-organiser with Chifumi and Vallier, and has plans to spend the months ahead making this year’s 10-day outing bigger and better than before.

“This is going to be really exciting and will show what’s going on in Cambodia right now,” he says.

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