After working in the finance sector, French-Cambodian Jean-Baptiste Phou decided to quit his job and follow his dream of working in the arts – a move that has led to him being recruited as Cambodia Living Art’s (CLA) latest country manager.
Born in France to Cambodian parents, Phou studied finance across Europe, gaining a Master’s degree before moving to Singapore to work as a business analyst. Harbouring a passion for the arts, in 2008 he heard about auditions in Cambodia for the country’s first contemporary opera, Where Elephants Weep.
“At that time, I wasn’t really a professional artist, I was singing for fun,” he says.
After landing a spot in the ensemble, Phou quit his job in Singapore and threw himself into his onstage role in the ground-breaking project.
“This was the first modern musical to be produced in Cambodia. It was huge,” he says, adding a team from the US was flown over to work alongside locals. “It was an epiphany that this could be a career for me. I’d always thought it was something to do for fun.”
Acting as a springboard for a new career path, Phou went on to study musical theatre and drama in the US and France, before launching his own theatre company. In 2012, he was invited to the Kingdom to adapt his French play, Cambodia, Here I Am, into Khmer.
In 2015, while still living in France, Phou decided it was time for another change and stopped all creative work. “I just didn’t feel the urge to express artistically,” he says.
After two years, he heard about the job at CLA and knew it was his calling. In June, he started his new role steering CLA into an exciting new chapter of its 20-year life.
As well as working to develop various new programmes and breathe new life into CLA’s daily shows at The National Museum in Phnom Penh, Phou hopes to inspire a new generation of creative Cambodians to follow their heart.
A grant programme was recently unveiled where artists can secure up to $2,000 to develop unique artistic projects. “I’d like to see new players coming in, people coming up with a new concept.”
Phou is also helping CLA in its mission to give artists with a platform to not only perform but make a living from their work. “We’re trying to create those job opportunities and that is very challenging,” he says, adding a major hurdle is convincing locals to pay for shows, which would provide funding for more dedicated art spaces and pay a living wage.
“We want to move away from the concept that art is free. We want to increase the value; the appreciation value,” he says, adding a programme has been developed for Cambodians, who pay $5 for a ticket. “We can see the mentality is changing and it’s a great time to be in Cambodia doing the job I’m doing.”
Words by Marissa Carruthers.
Photo by Lim Sokchanlina.