A home for Cambodia's contemporary art

In Cambodia, art is often consigned to the past. The country's ancient temples are celebrated while its contemporary artists seldom are recognized.

Ingrid Muan '85 is trying to change this.

The storefront art gallery and cultural center where she works, Reyum, is a showcase for contemporary art, offering downtown Phnom Penh film screenings, lectures, exhibits and dance performances free of charge. "It's a place where you can see things that are visually interesting and hopefully learn something," says Muan, a founder and curator. "That's what we really want Reyum to be."

It is more than that; recently Reyum began publishing children's books illustrated by exhibiting artists. "It's hard for us to imagine, but many children grow up here without ever having a book of their own," says Muan. "In order for the teaching level at the university to improve, the first step is to have a much greater culture of literacy among children."

That university is Cambodia's Royal University of Fine Arts, where Muan teaches modern art history with the support of a grant from the Asian Cultural Council. Inspired by their students, she and Ly Daravuth, a fellow teacher, opened Reyum in 1998: "Our students have so little to see and so little experience of exhibitions and books in which ideas are freely expressed. These are the realities of a rebuilding society." The steady stream of students, townspeople and tourists who wander in prove that Reyum is filling a need.

Muan got her MFA from the U/CA-Davis, then taught painting at Haverford and Elizabethtown colleges. One summer, she visited a friend in Hong Kong and realized that she knew "almost nothing about that part of the world." In subsequent summers she traveled to Indonesia, Vietnam and finally Cambodia, the country that most captured her imagination. Muan then pursued her Ph.D. in modern art history from Columbia. Her dissertation tells the story of the founding of the university, which at first trained Cambodian students to make only traditional objects. "I was interested in what modern art history might look like in a place like Cambodia, which is so often consigned to a glorious architectural past," she says. "No one seemed to think that art was also made in Cambodia during the 20th century."

Reyum's current exhibit is on the silk batik work of Long Sophea, a professor who was trained as a fabric designer in Moscow in the 1980s. An exhibition of Khmer ceramics will follow. Previous exhibits explained Khmer mask-making techniques and Lakhaoun Khoal, the costume drama in which the masks are used to present scenes from the Cambodian version of the Ramayana. "The Legacy of Absence: A Cambodian Story" displayed work by contemporary Cambodian artists addressing the country's recent violent history and the resulting absence of communities and generations. Reyum is funded by the Kasumisou Foundation. For more information contact reyum@camnet.com.kh.

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