Armed with knitting needles, paintbrushes and pencils, an army of creative folk are bringing new artistic outlets to the capital. Bridget Di Certo goes behind the front lines to investigate the community arts and crafts scene and find out how to get involved. Photography by Chatti Phal.
For an artist, life is full of colour. A sliver of shadow in the afternoon sun can conjure up images of an exotic villain cloaked in crushed velvet. A stranger’s gentle gesture spied across a smoky bar could be the spark for a dance sequence en pointe. But creative escapism can be elusive in Cambodia’s capital, where work deadlines, financial pressures and an omnipresent drinking scene reign.
Living in a bustling city with a heavy work load is likely to impede imaginative endeavours — be it learning new skills or practising passions — but, as sometime visual artist Sandrine Bannwarth points out, art can be a great way to counter environmental pressures.
“Having a creative outlet can give people that opportunity, let them express their imagination and temporarily, spiritually escape from their daily issues,” says Bannwarth, who co-organises a life drawing class in the capital. “Creativeness can take many forms and be a healing force [to] give people strength, help them reflect, or simply entertain them and make them happy.”
For those uninitiated into the arts, engaging in such pursuits can seem inaccessible, but as with any skill art is not reserved for a handful of select prodigies. A few bright sparks are assaulting social monotony with creative outlets that unite passionate painters, theatre-lovers and even the odd knitter.
In the wrong hands, two sharp implements could spark a crime scene, but on a Tuesday night at Kiriya Coffee in BKK1 it marks the beginning of a scarf. Knitting has long thrown off its “nanna” associations and the Cambodian capital is not immune to the craft’s rising popularity, thanks to a social group called Stitch’n’Bitch.
“Stitch’n’Bitch is a standard name for any knitting group, a place for knitters to talk to each other,” says Monika Nowaczyk, group founder and the force behind NGO Cambodia Knits. “You need patience, perseverance and a sense of humour. It can be quite addictive and, in a way, meditative.”
The Phnom Penh chapter started informally a few years ago and has developed a loyal following. While the group’s name sometimes throws people, meetings are always held in fine humour. Four to eight members of varying levels of experience meet three times a week at different coffee shops around the city, with the group welcoming newcomers.
Knitting is a craft that expands with knowledge, always offering aficionados new ways to challenge themselves. As Nowaczyk points out, those who are new to the needles would probably have a lot to gain from meeting more experienced knitters. Members of SNB have woven their way to making elephants and crocheted koalas along with sweaters, hats, socks and scarves. “There are people who come here who are working in so many interesting areas so it always prompts good discussion,” a participant says at a small midweek meet.
SNBers enlighten me to the new concept of ‘Guerrilla Knitting’, which involves leaving a graffiti-inspired mark in the form of a knitted item in a public area. Expats from London, UK, or Melbourne, Australia, may be familiar with the occasional attack in their neighbourhood. A bus stop could be adorned with a cozy new beanie, or a bike bar wrapped in a pearl-knitted scarf.
In addition to the social aspect of meeting people from different walks of life, Nowaczyk highlights that there is a meditative quality to the art. Knitting can be extremely therapeutic and can channel tension and increase mindfulness.
Enthusiasts say the pastime is especially useful for people suffering from nervous disorders such as anxiety, hypertension, obsessive-compulsive disorders or depression. Others speak of a stitching addiction helping with eating issues. Busy hands and increased concentration help quell overeating that could lead to weight problems.
Pencils at Dawn
Drink & Draw is another creative group that is shaking cobwebs off the more innovative parts of Phnom Penhers’ brains. The objective is to provide an opportunity for people who like to draw, paint, sketch and take photographs — and drink — to come together with like-minded people each month.
During each session, a live model strikes different poses. At the beginning, the model keeps a few dynamic poses for one minute, then two minutes and five minutes. These are energetic and designed to allow drawers to catch the action quickly on paper. After a break, they take longer poses: 10 minutes and eventually 15 minutes. The longer poses highlight the figure and physical details of the model, enabling drawers to concentrate on capturing still life.
“Generally speaking, people who hear about the concept of Drink & Draw usually find it quite appealing. The idea is simple: we have our own music and drinks and we just spend two hours doing something we enjoy — drawing,” says Bannwarth, one of the organisers who took over the reins of the group after founder EJ Callahan relocated from Cambodia.
“Visual art and drawing had always been part of my life too but it was the first time I was given the chance to draw live models and I also really liked the concept of a laid-back artistic Sunday evening,” she adds.
The session ultimately focuses as much on socialising as it does on giving drawers or beginners the opportunity to try something new.
“Beyond a creative outlet, art is also a language per se,” Bannwarth says. “Our group generally gathers foreigners from diverse countries worldwide, together with Cambodians. Drawing establishes new and unique forms and opportunities of dialogue, sharing and interactions between individuals.”
The idea of using creativity to connect a community is something that the newly opened Phnom Penh Community College aims to master.
Chief executive officer Gabriel Helmy says the idea of an adult-learning-for-fun college is a familiar concept in his native Australia. Participants sign up for classes, which last for a half or full day, based on pitches from prospective facilitators who have “a real passion for something”.
“I’ve been in Cambodia for four years and I hear a lot in the expat community that there isn’t that much [recreational] activity going on,” Helmy says. “The expat community here is very diverse, very open from a cultural perspective and very willing to try something new, and there are a lot of expats who really have a lot of spare time on their hands.”
Classes at the centre, which officially opened in September and hopes to draw a diverse mix of students, have included acrylic painting on canvas, photography, flamenco and belly dancing. Helmy and his co-founders describe a combination of curiosity, adventure and desire for entertainment as the perfect melting pot for creative classes in Phnom Penh.
“The idea is to be a one-stop shop. There are different classes on every weekend and people can say ‘let’s go see what’s happening at the community college today’,” he says.
Like Drink & Draw and Stitch’n’Bitch, workshops are coupled with a social side. Classes are kept small and intimate at about 10 participants to help foster positive rapport between the facilitator and participants. They run about once a month, but frequency is set to increase.
Taking the Stage
Long-running theatre group the Phnom Penh Players (PPP) is another organically driven ensemble of passionate people, who get together several times a year to plan a stage production. It has run for about 15 years and all show profits go toward different artistic organisations in Cambodia.
“I would recommend PPP if someone is looking for a fun project with varying levels of commitment. It’s a great social group and there are a lot of opportunities to get involved in different aspects of the productions,” says Teia Rogers, director of 2012’s production ‘Cigarettes and Chocolate’, and more recently the director of an independently performed production of ‘The Vagina Monologues’.
There is no set format or management team for the Players’ productions, providing an open platform for those new to the theatre scene to dive in and get involved with writing, directing, lighting, costume, set design or acting.
While Rogers has been involved in a multitude of theatre programmes in her native US, she points out that her chief involvement with the Players’ has been with light and sound, an area she previously had limited knowledge of, emphasising the ease with which beginners can become involved.
Ways to unleash or develop your particular artistic flair exist in other more conventional formats. Dance World Cambodia has recently expanded its repertoire of classes to include hip hop, break dancing and belly dancing, as well as tap, jazz and ballet. Wednesday night salsa at Equinox has maintained a loyal following and is a platform for both seasoned dancers and beginners.
Getting creative in the kitchen with cooking classes focusing on local ingredients is a great option for budding master chefs. While a slew of photography courses are on offer for both the novice, and those looking to become more familiar with their own camera.
The standout feature of Phnom Penh’s recreational arts scene is the social element that all its groups foster. Beginners are always welcome to try something new and find a shared passion with other residents from different walks of life. With so many varied groups active in the city, options abound to find the artist within, whatever your passion or artistic curiosity may be.
Drink & Draw Visit www.facebook.com/DrinkAndDrawCambodia
Stitch’n’Bitch Visit phnompenhstitchnbitch.wordpress.com
Phnom Penh Community College The Capacity Specialists Training Centre, First Floor, 182 Street 63. www.facebook.com/ PhnomPenhCommunityCollege, firstname.lastname@example.org. Tel: 089 882 756.
Phnom Penh Players Email email@example.com
Dance World Cambodia Visit danceworldcambo.wordpress.com
Salsa Visit salsa-phnompenh.com
Photography Visit nathanhortonphotography.com