To celebrate a decade of living in Cambodia, French artist Théo Vallier talks with editor Marissa Carruthers about how he has helped push the country’s urban art scene and come up with new innovative ways to capture the capital’s changing landscape. Photography by Enric Català.
What brought you to Cambodia?
I met a friend [Linda Saphan] in France, who I was doing a show with, and she started telling me about Cambodia. She was holding workshops with young Cambodian kids and said she had a space and contacts, and asked if I wanted her to organise something here. I said, “Sure, why not?”
I came in October 2007 and had 10 days to produce the exhibition. For my first 10 days, I was only in the studio painting, painting, painting from morning to night. I produced almost 10 paintings – one a day; it was crazy.
The show went well and I sold out. It was my first time selling so much so that was cool. I became friends with the owner of Gasolina, where the exhibition was held. I asked if he wanted me to do another exhibition a month later.
He said yes, so I rented an apartment and started painting. That sold out too so I decided to stay a bit longer. I extended my flight and got a visa for three more months, then six months. Now it’s been 10 years.
What was the art scene like when you arrived?
I was doing a lot of graffiti then, real street graffiti. The street art scene was totally non-existent. In terms of the general art scene, some artists were here and a few galleries were open, such as Java.
I worked with Linda to hold art classes with the young Cambodians she was teaching and taught them about urban art and graffiti. Some of those are well-known street artists here now; some are photographers and a lot of artists now at Sa Sa gallery were in that project.
When did local interest in urban art start?
I don’t think there was one point, it happened slowly. Street art is something I’ve been working on a lot here.
After I had my first solo exhibition at the French Institute in 2011 [Graffiti: Urban Writing], I really started pushing more of the street art scene. Now you can see a lot of the young guys trying to do street art.
Three years ago, we held the first Cambodia Urban Art Festival and now it’s moving in the right direction. In the last six months, it’s become a lot easier to find good spray cans from Europe and you can find almost all the materials here now, which really helps.
What have been your personal highlights?
It has to be working on developing the street art scene. Personally, I’ve been living off my art 100 percent since moving here and finding more and more clients, which has been amazing.
As Phnom Penh develops with more bars, restaurants and hotels, there are more opportunities for me to work. Vehaa [recently opened rooftop restaurant, bar, spa and apartments in Phnom Penh] was a very good project because I worked with my good friend Chifumi.
There are 14 apartments and the owner asked us to make one mural in each apartment, which was great.
What is your favourite piece of work?
There have been a lot of different things. I like to switch between walls and my rust metal work. I love it when I have big commissions like Vehaa or Oskar. In Oskar, there are 16 of my metal works on top of the bar.
The guys said they loved what I was doing, so go ahead and do what I want, and take the time I wanted. For the opening two years ago, they asked me to put all the metal on the wall without any paint. Then I took the first two panels home and I started painting them.
Then I put the first one back and took the third one to link with the second one, and so on. It took me six months to finish it but I was doing it slowly. Almost every month I was bringing new work in. It was like a living work of art.
What is rust metal painting?
It’s a concept I have spent years developing. I started on my rusted metal work before I came here, but just for a few months. Then when I arrived in Cambodia I had more time to develop the concept.
Now the technique is almost perfect. I know what I’m doing and can control the rust and the timing. I first hand paint with white acrylic and put it outside with some water on and let it rust so the first layer is very rusty. Then I take it back in the studio and paint a second layer, and a third. Then I start painting.
What has been the reaction from the public?
A lot of people look at it and say, “Wow, your photographs are good. How do you print them on the metal?” They are surprised when I say I paint everything by hand.
It takes a lot of work because I have to paint each layer then leave it to rust, and do that again. There are lots of small details. I work with my own photographs, walking the streets and taking pictures.
Then I work on Photoshop on the computer to separate the different layers of the picture and start painting. Depending on size and how many details there are on the image, it can take from between two or three weeks, to two months.
How has living in Cambodia influenced your style?
There are many references to Cambodian culture in my street art. I developed the rusted metal technique further because of Cambodia. The streets of Phnom Penh really fit in with the rust effect for me. When I look at the streets, this is how I see them.
What are your plans for the future?
I can definitely say I’m here now. I have a son here and I think I’ll be here for a lot longer. We’re working on the festival [Cambodia Urban Art Festival – slated to take place in December] trying to do it every year and I really want to see how the scene continues to develop.
I hope more people will become interested and more Cambodians understand more what urban art is all about, and that we will be allowed to make the city more beautiful.