Art’s New Road Map


Hong Kong Tatler - - Features - Por­trait Akif Hakan Celebi

Anida Ali was born in Bat­tam­bang, Cam­bo­dia, on the eve of the Kh­mer Rouge’s reign of terror. Dur­ing the years she was learn­ing to walk, Pol Pot’s com­mu­nist regime im­ple­mented bru­tal mea­sures to purge the na­tion of re­li­gion, for­eign in­flu­ences and in­tel­lec­tu­als. The pop­u­la­tion was forced into agri­cul­tural labour and mil­lions starved or were ex­e­cuted on ac­count of their piety or ed­u­ca­tion.

As prac­tis­ing Kh­mer Mus­lims, Ali’s par­ents feared for their lives. In 1979 her fam­ily fled to the US and set­tled in Chicago as refugees. “My par­ents left Cam­bo­dia think­ing they were never go­ing to be able to re­turn. They didn’t even think we would need the Kh­mer lan­guage. That is how se­vere a move it was. They thought there was no need to teach us about our cul­ture be­cause we were in Amer­ica now; this was our new life and our new home. The only so­lu­tion was as­sim­i­la­tion,” says the 40-year-old artist.

As­sim­i­late she did. Em­phatic, ex­pres­sive and elo­quent, Ali’s dense Amer­i­can ac­cent be­trays no trace of her di­as­poric up­bring­ing. She grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Illi­nois with a Bach­e­lor of Fine Arts, then com­pleted a Master of Fine Arts at the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago. But she al­ways viewed her life in the West through the lens of a refugee, and an un­shake­able pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with her roots pen­e­trated her work. In 2011, Ali was awarded a Ful­bright fel­low­ship to work as an artist in Ph­nom Penh and re­turned, for the first time, to the na­tion of her birth.

Hav­ing suc­cess­fully be­come an Amer­i­can, she was now an out­sider in her na­tive coun­try. “When I re­turned to Cam­bo­dia in a time of peace I was not equipped with the cul­tural tools to prop­erly re­late and rein­te­grate,” says Ali. She couldn’t com­mu­ni­cate, and though eth­ni­cally Kh­mer, she had lit­tle grasp of lo­cal cus­toms and tra­di­tions. As a Mus­lim, she found her­self part of a re­li­gious mi­nor­ity in a land where 98 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion iden­ti­fies as Bud­dhist. Nor was there a con­tem­po­rary art scene in which she could im­merse her­self. Although a mod­ern art move­ment had flour­ished in Cam­bo­dia from the 1940s, the cre­ative com­mu­nity was razed in the 1970s. The lit­tle art that sur­faced in the fol­low­ing decades—work by artists such as Vann Nath, who painted vivid scenes of tor­ture and per­se­cu­tion—was pre­oc­cu­pied with the pain of the re­cent past, a past Ali re­ally only knew sec­ond-hand.

She used this cul­tural dis­lo­ca­tion as fuel for art. Her work, which spans per­for­mance, pho­tog­ra­phy, video and in­stal­la­tions, ex­plores the spir­i­tual and po­lit­i­cal col­li­sions of a hy­brid transna­tional iden­tity. The Bud­dhist Bug Pro­ject— a se­ries of per­for­mances cap­tured in pho­to­graphs—presents Ali in a re­tractable saf­fron tube, snaking in­con­gru­ously through ur­ban Cam­bo­dian streetscapes. “She’s en­gulfed in saf­fron, which ref­er­ences the robes of Bud­dhist monks. But when you take a closer look, you can see she is wear­ing a hi­jab, ad­her­ing to the mod­esty code of Is­lamic tra­di­tion,” says the artist. “The fab­ric that en­com­passes her can easily fold up and col­lapse. This por­ta­ble shell al­ludes to the refugee ex­pe­ri­ence—ar­riv­ing in a place with noth­ing but the clothes on your back, and the idea of home be­ing elu­sive.”

Ali wasn’t the only Cam­bo­dian artist to be

To be a con­tem­po­rary artist in Cam­bo­dia right now is some­thing very new. Across In­dochina there aren’t many artists who are very ac­tive in the con­tem­po­rary art scene. Anida’s work stood out be­cause she’s fe­male and be­cause she’s Cam­bo­dian

recog­nised in this year’s Sov­er­eign Asian Art Prize. The an­nual com­pe­ti­tion, founded in Hong Kong in 2003 and backed by the Sov­er­eign Art Foun­da­tion, seeks to ex­pose and boost mid-ca­reer Asian artists. Kh­vay Sam­nang, another Kh­mer per­for­mance artist, had his pho­to­graphic work Hu­man Na­ture short­listed, and there were nu­mer­ous In­dochi­nese artists, in­clud­ing Viet­namese per­for­mance artist Phan Quang, Sin­ga­porean Eu­gene Soh and Thai­land’s Du­sadee Hun­trakul, among the fi­nal­ists.

“To be a con­tem­po­rary artist in Cam­bo­dia right now is some­thing very new,” says Emi Eu, di­rec­tor of the Sin­ga­pore Tyler Print In­sti­tute. Eu, who sits on the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee for Art Basel in Hong Kong, was one of a hand­ful of Asia-based con­tem­po­rary art minds that chose Ali as the win­ner of the re­gional art com­pe­ti­tion this year. “Across In­dochina there aren’t many artists who are very ac­tive in the con­tem­po­rary art scene. I think Anida’s work re­ally stood out be­cause she’s fe­male, and be­cause she’s Cam­bo­dian.”

Auc­tion houses and in­ter­na­tional art in­sti­tu­tions have been se­duced by Cam­bo­dian art over the past few years. Works by sculp­tor Sopheap Pich have been ac­quired by New York’s Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art and the Solomon R Guggen­heim Mu­seum. The artist, who works with burlap, beeswax and rat­tan, was also the first Cam­bo­dian to be given a solo show at the pres­ti­gious Doc­u­menta fes­ti­val in Kas­sel, Ger­many, in 2012. Younger artists, such as Sam­nang, Tith Kanitha, Chov Theanly, Sokun­tevy Oeur, Than Sok and Chan Dany, are also forg­ing names for them­selves in the world’s art cap­i­tals and at­tain­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion by es­tab­lished gal­leries.

Why is in­ter­est grow­ing? Fumio Nanjo, di­rec­tor of Tokyo’s Mori Art Mu­seum, points to the re­gion’s eco­nomic rise. “As we know, art of­ten flour­ishes in line with the econ­omy. Cam­bo­dia is emerg­ing af­ter Viet­nam, and the coun­tries are now more ex­posed to the con­tem­po­rane­ity and flow of in­for­ma­tion. Young artists have started to re­flect their na­tions’ sit­u­a­tions with crit­i­cal eyes.”

Ali is do­ing her part to nur­ture this new gen­er­a­tion of Cam­bo­dian artists. In 2011 she set up Stu­dio Re­volt in Ph­nom Penh, an in­de­pen­dent, artist-run media lab where cre­ative minds can col­lab­o­rate on per­for­mance, video, pho­tog­ra­phy and in­stal­la­tion art. Through this, Ali in­tends to shape a new art move­ment that frees the Cam­bo­dian imag­i­na­tion and con­scious­ness from its fix­a­tion on war and poverty.

“We are sur­pris­ing the rest of the world by say­ing we are done with the Kh­mer Rouge. We know it will con­tinue to in­form some of the things we do in the fu­ture, but we don’t want to cre­ate art that con­tin­u­ally puts us in the past,” she says. “This is a real mo­ment of in­ter­sec­tion for con­tem­po­rary artists in Cam­bo­dia. We are mov­ing the con­ver­sa­tion for­ward to the present mo­ment, which, for us, is about ur­ban­i­sa­tion, glob­al­i­sa­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. It is re­ally ex­cit­ing to think we are fi­nally achiev­ing a kind of crit­i­cal mass within the con­tem­po­rary art scene, and it’s prompt­ing peo­ple to take no­tice.”

The Wall Street Jour­nal es­ti­mated in 2013 that there were less than 50 work­ing artists in Cam­bo­dia out of a pop­u­la­tion of 14 mil­lion. It may be an ex­cit­ing mo­ment for Kh­mer cre­ativ­ity, but it’s still vastly chal­leng­ing to sur­vive as an artist. “The re­sources are so lim­ited, there is no in­sti­tu­tional sup­port for the arts and very, very lit­tle fi­nan­cial gov­ern­ment back­ing,” says Ali. “The fact that lo­cal

artists per­se­vere is tes­ta­ment to the re­silience of the Cam­bo­dian peo­ple and our her­itage of cre­ativ­ity— dance and mu­sic and the arts is in our blood and I don’t see why this can’t trans­late to con­tem­po­rary and per­for­mance art.”

Eu be­lieves Ali’s win­ning of the Sov­er­eign Asian Art Prize will have a ma­jor im­pact on the way the Cam­bo­dian gov­ern­ment, and in­deed other South­east Asian gov­ern­ments, see and un­der­stand their arts com­mu­ni­ties. “Of­ten gov­ern­ments that are very new to con­tem­po­rary art are not sup­port­ive be­cause they sim­ply don’t know any­thing about it,” says Eu. “Ex­ter­nal val­i­da­tion is crit­i­cal, es­pe­cially in places in South­east Asia where con­tem­po­rary art is a new thing. It has to start from the out­side in.”

snaking saf­fron Spi­ral Al­ley, a work from Anida Ali’s per­for­mance se­ries The Bud­dhist Bug Pro­ject, won the Sov­er­eign Asian Art Prize

this year

crit­i­cal ac­claim Revered gal­le­rina Emi Eu, the di­rec­tor of the Sin­ga­pore Tyler Print In­sti­tute, was one of the judges in this year’s com­pe­ti­tion

a re­gion ris­ing The work of 2014-15 Sov­er­eign Asian Art Prize fi­nal­ists, from top: Empty Ev­ery Night by Du­sadee Hun­trakul (Thai­land); Sun­day Af­ter­noon on the Is­land of Sin­ga­pore by Eu­gene Soh (Sin­ga­pore); Love Hid­den by Phan Quang (Viet­nam)

jum­bled iden­tity Also short­listed was this work from Kh­vay Sam­nang’s Hu­man Na­ture se­ries, which doc­u­ments the lives of ten­ants in the River­front Mu­nic­i­pal Apart­ments in Ph­nom Penh

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