As the Urban Art Festival prepares to make its second annual outing, editor Marissa Carruthers gets an insight into the bubbling art scene.
A crowd of young Cambodians gather around a freshly painted white wall in a once-forgotten part of Phnom Penh. Kneeling in front of them, one of their peers dips his brush into a pot of paint and adds a splash of colour to the wall, as if by magic transforming the shabby spot into a stunning work of art.
The youngster is one of a growing number of street artists who are starting to make their mark on the capital. While the urban art movement has exploded across the globe, it remains in its infancy in Cambodia.
However, the nascent scene is on the rise as more of the younger generation are exposed to the art form through international artists, the internet and the launch of festivals, such as Develop Beung Kak Art’s Art Festival last month and the current Cambodia Urban Art Festival.
“Street art is a way in which I am able to paint what I want with no rules or terms and conditions that I need to follow,” says 20-year-old Kimchean Koy, who first started dabbling with the form two years ago. “I am the one who paints what I want to paint, and it is this freedom that I find intriguing in street art.”
Artists Lisa Mam and Peap Tarr helped kick-start the movement after a chance meeting four years ago. Art had run through the veins of Cambodian Mam, who started sketching at the age of six but was put off by her parents, who wanted her to follow a more economically fruitful career.
As a teenager, she was unable to ignore her artistic streak and once again picked up a paintbrush, and at the age of 21 was introduced to established street artist, Cambodian-New Zealander Tarr. “I saw his work and was amazed,” she says. The couple hit it off and started an art collaboration that continues today.
Their signature style, which can be seen across the capital in bars, coffee shops and restaurants, draws on Khmer culture, such as the hand gestures of Apsara dancers and the five-headed dragon, Naga. “We are inspired by our Khmer heritage and visually translate that into street art,” says Tarr, who now works with Mam on an international scale.
Positioned in prominent places, their work pricked the interest of a new wave of intrigued local artists, who were also captivated by the murals emerging across the city by foreigners bringing their skills to the country.
“It’s amazing to help a new urban art movement grow in my hometown of Phnom Penh,” says Mam, who remains Cambodia’s only female street artist. “I want Khmer graffiti, and also the creativeness of the future Khmer urban movement, to be seen around the world.”
On Mar. 31, the country’s second Urban Art Festival opened, following in the footsteps of Develop Boeung Kak Art’s Art Festival, which saw three renowned graffiti artists from Thailand work alongside Cambodians to add more colour to the once dilapidated lakeside area.
“I really want to try and develop the street art scene in Cambodia, and that’s my most important goal,” says Theo Vallier, who relocated to Cambodia from France, in 2007, and co-organised the Urban Art Festival with the French Institute and fellow street artist, Chifumi. “It was hard when I first got here because nobody really knew about it or understood what it was about.”
In April last year, Cambodia Urban Art Festival made its debut in Phnom Penh, taking in live painting performances, exhibitions and a series of gigs. Vallier and Chifumi also gathered a handful of local and international graffiti artists, including Tarr and Mam, and invited them to paint murals across the capital on designated walls. A tuk tuk tour of the work was held, with the 50 reserved vehicles filling up within minutes of opening.
This year’s outing follows a similar format, with the event set to be even bigger and better than last year. Until Apr. 23, a series of exhibitions and events will be dotted across the capital, with a tuk tuk tour taking visitors to this year’s freshly painted murals.
David Ou, a Cambodian-American who moved to Cambodia seven years ago, will be taking part in the festival for the second time. He says events, such as the Urban Art Festival, are helping to propel the urban art scene into new realms throughout the Kingdom. “It shows others what street art is all about. That it isn’t a bad thing; it’s a form of expression that is seen by the masses,” says the 20-year-old, who goes by the name of Strange the Rabbit.
With the hype surrounding this year’s festival already mounting, hopes are high that the scene will continue to grow into the future. Kimchean, who will also be putting in his second festival appearance this year, adds, “The street art scene seems to be growing rapidly as people are seeing the potential. More and more pieces are popping up here and there, with no signs of slowing down. The future seems bright and, obviously, colourful.”