Catering to the common complaint from Cambodia’s contemporary artists over the lack of space to display their work, a new gallery is hoping to propel them into international realms. Words by Marissa Carruthers; photography by Lucas Veuve.

It was while enjoying a few drinks watching the colourful boat races at last year’s Water Festival in Phnom Penh that Sokchamroeun Yi and colleague Pierre-Andre Romano found their mutual love of art.

“We discovered we are both art lovers and have a real connection with Cambodian art,” says Yi. “We wanted to help promote the great art that comes out of Cambodia, and show that to the world.”

Destiny played her part, and while walking back from the Bonn Om Touk celebrations at riverside, they passed a small wine bistro that was for rent on the stretch of Sothearos Boulevard, between Wat Ounalom and Street 178.

“We started thinking about turning it into a venue where people can come and look at the art and appreciate a nice glass of wine while discussing it,” says Yi, whose art appreciation started when he attended exhibitions puts on at venues such as the French Institute, Meta House and Java Café – “A few years ago, that was really all we had in terms of galleries. I would go to all the exhibitions and started to make friends with the artists. This was when my interest started,” he recalls.

The next few months were spent calling on their network of artistic contacts across the country, securing artists for the opening exhibition and radically revamping the venue to transform it into the light lofty space that today houses the gallery and wine bar, Khmer Sense.

Having opened in March, the focus is on providing a platform for young contemporary artists to shine alongside their more established peers. “We are looking for new innovative artists, especially young ones,” says Yi. “They are the ones who most need the space to present their work.”

While space for artists is on the increase across the capital and beyond, Yi says that many galleries showcase local work, however, expat artists and other international creatives often put

in appearances.

He is quick to add he is not critical of this, but says Khmer Sense aims to throw the spotlight solely on fresh Cambodian creativity.

“We want to see artists from the provinces showing their work in the city,” Yi says. “We want to introduce them to artists in the capital, as well as give their work exposure to the expats, tourists and Cambodians here.”

The ultimate goal is to gather local artists and send their work to be displayed at European art galleries, giving them the international recognition they deserve. “In order to reach that level, we have to get it right in Cambodia first,” he says.

“We want to do something really big like this, and we have the resources and contacts abroad, but we have to start small, and inspiring more Cambodians to love art is a very good first step.”

Helping to stimulate the art scene locally is another aspiration, with Cambodians, especially older generations, preferring traditional paintings, such as landscapes of Angkor Wat and rolling paddies.

“There is nothing wrong with that,” says Yi. “This is our culture and our art but we want to show that Cambodians can create something new, we don’t always have to focus on what is already there. We need to strive towards this. In order to do that, our gallery focuses on contemporary works.”

And Yi hopes that nurturing more interest locally in contemporary art will encourage more Cambodians to invest in local art and nuture more of a buyers and collectors’ scene.

“This is a good investment in their heritage and culture,” he adds.

Six artists feature in the opening exhibition, including award-winning photographer Kim Hak, an intriguing series of self-portraits from Khun Vannak, painter Chan Sophorn who recently graduated from a Masters in contemporary painting in South Korea, revered artist Em Riem, and artists Ou Meng and Thav Sovann.

Yi says they chose more high-profile Cambodians to launch the gallery. However, the second exhibition, which is set to open this month, will feature lesser known artists from the provinces and other parts of the country.

Yi and Romano are currently working with galleries in Battambang, such as Romchiek 5, to source the scene’s rising stars.

“All of the galleries have a similar vision and mission so why not work together?” says Yi.

“There is a strong artistic community in Cambodia, we need to come together more and help push this movement in the right direction to really benefit the art community.”

Khmer Sense is open Tuesday to Sunday, from 2pm to 9pm. For more information, follow Khmer Sense on Facebook.