Cambodian Artists to Arrive on New York Scene

New York City has named April 13 “Cambodia Day” to mark the official launch of the arts festival “Season of Cambodia.”

After years of hard work on the part of individuals on both sides of the globe, the city will welcome more than 100 Cambodian artists, who will feature in some of its most prestigious venues.

The opening ceremony of “Season of Cambodia,” to be held at the Rubin Museum of Art, will include a concert of Cambodian traditional music, a fitting start since the festival is a project of Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), an organization created in 1998 to help the country’s master musicians train the next generation of traditional musicians.

Among the few events scheduled ahead of the official launch were an exhibition by sculptor Sopheap Pich, who in February became one of a rare crop of contemporary artists chosen to exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro’s Khmer Arts Ensemble company will also premiere tomorrow at the Joyce Theater with the Khmer classical ballet, “A Bend in the River,” the music for which was written by Cambo­dian composer Him Sophy.

The festival which involves about 125 artists took three years to set up with the participation of numerous organizations in Cambodia and New York.

It has not been without mishaps, its goal of showcasing leading Cambodian artists being attained in some respects but far less so in others.

When CLA first launched the idea of the festival, the sheer audacity of the project surprised people in Phnom Penh as well as New York: Here was CLA planning to take by storm a world arts capital whose audiences are accustomed to being treated to the best artists from every continent.

Moreover, while cultural festivals of this type are usually held by governments with considerable public and private funding, “Season of Cambodia” was going to be organized by NGOs and individuals supporting the arts in Cambodia.

Nevertheless, CLA director Prim Phloeun went about involving New York arts and culture organizations into the project with the support of CLA’s board, which is mainly American.

His goal was to show New York how far Cambodia’s arts have come since the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to eradicate the country’s culture and artists in the 1970s.

“This festival would show the cumulative efforts of the last 30 years to accomplish this cultural renaissance,” Mr. Phloeun said on Sunday from New York. “A celebration…carrying the vision and hope of all who have worked and supported the arts in Cambodia.”

Mr. Phloeun brought on board Fred Frumberg, director of Phnom Penh’s Amrita Performing Arts organization, who, in his spare time, had produced an opera at the famed Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2011.

From the very start, Mr. Frumberg said, the difficulty was “how to present the wide spectrum of Cambodian arts…in a way that would best represent Cambo­dia’s burgeoning arts scene while at the same time bringing work that could stand up to a very challenging audience in New York.

“And like with any festival, there would be huge limitations in terms of finances, venues and so on. It’s been a constant dilemma,” he said on Friday.

In performing arts overseen by Mr. Frumberg, a vast range of performers feature in the festival: from the Royal Ballet of Cambodia and Cambodian contemporary dancers, to the Shadow Puppet Troupe of Wat Bo in Siem Reap City.

In visual arts however, the program created by two American curators—Leeza Ahmady based in New York and Erin Gleeson in Phnom Penh—mainly includes artists affiliated with Phnom Penh’s Sa Sa Bassac gallery that Ms. Gleeson represents.

Asked about this in an interview in February, Ms. Gleeson first said this was due to Ms. Ahmady who wanted “internationally conversant artists.”

Then Ms. Gleeson explained that her favoring the artists with whom she works was to be expected.

“This is what I’m most familiar with,” she said. “So I think it’s very natural. It can be criticized but every curator is criticized for his selection.”

Still, the festival could hardly avoid featuring Sopheap Pich and Leang Seckon, Cambodia’s two best-known artists internationally, who are not part of Sa Sa Bassac.

Mr. Pich’s exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum was set up through the museum’s curators who were familiar with his work, Mr. Phloeun and Tyler Rollins Fine Art—the New York gallery representing him.

As for Mr. Seckon, whose participation was confirmed late in the festival’s planning, the two curators did not find a venue for his work.

On the other hand, photographer Vandy Rattana who founded Sa Sa Bassac with Ms. Gleeson in the 2000s, has an exhibition of his 2009 photos and documentary titled “The Bomb Ponds” at the Asia Society Museum on New York’s Park Avenue.

In design, Madeleine de Langalerie, who organized the design show Salon des Createurs in Phnom Penh last year, secured two venues.

One is a teatime scene set up in the lobby of the Sofitel New York hotel on West 44th Street—a prime location off Fifth Avenue-displaying the work of nine artists.

“The teatime theme makes it possible to feature a great many artists in a small space,” she said. This includes a tea set designed by Oum Manorith, por­celain plates illustrated by graffiti artists Lisa Mam and Pip Tha, two mannequins dressed by fashion designer Lim Keo and a silk tablecloth by the association Khmer Silk Villages that represents 1,500 silkworm farmers and weavers.

Moreover, the Asia Society boutique will have a display of Lim Pisith’s silver jewelry and Lim Muy Theam’s design objects, Ms. de Langalerie added.

Numerous Phnom Penh individuals and organizations have rallied behind CLA, including film director Rithy Panh and the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center who are holding a film program.

The festival runs through May, although some events will continue into June and July.

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