Curators do not get much attention and recognition, especially from the younger generation. So, Good Times2’s Say Tola introduces us to Yean Reaksmey, a Cambodian curator who aims to uplift the Kingdom’s artistic expression and make the country’s artists well known overseas.
GoodTimes2: When did you realise that you had passion for arts?
Reaksmey: As my house was located next to Phare Ponleu Selpak School, I was introduced to art at the age of eight. At that age, I started to take a strong interest in drawing and traditional Khmer music played at weddings.
However, there were no art classes for young people at the time. But Svay Sareth, the famous artist, accepted me to be his only student. He and his wife, Yin Maline, allowed me to study drawing. It was however cut short because they flew off to France. After that informal arts education, I travelled around drawing what I saw and interpreted. That was how my desire to draw became intense. Later on, a music school was established. I was already old enough that time so I was allowed to register. I spent two hours at the school every day. I felt that I really developed a deep connection with arts ever since.
GoodTimes2: You had been selected to work in Phare Ponleu Selpak as a communication and advertising officer after you graduated from high school. How were you hired?
Reaksmey: Maybe because I was friendly and always had a smile on my face. Jokes aside, I think they saw my potential. When I was still studying there, I already started doing some work and welcomed guests. They probably saw that I was articulate. My ability to speak French and English languages helped. I was mentored for three months before I got the position. But it was all basically self-learning. I think what makes me different from others is that I keep pushing myself to learn new things. Maybe that’s what they saw in me, too.
GoodTimes2: Were your parents supportive of your passion?
Reaksmey: When I was growing up, I saw no problem. But as I became older and finished high school in 2009, my parents told me to get a degree in economics because they thought it would give me a better future. My family isn’t really well off. So I followed what they said. But it only lasted for three months. I realised that my heart is really in the arts. That’s what I wanted. I stopped going to school and disappointed my father. It was my mother who understood my passion.
GoodTimes2: Phare Ponleu Selpak was a really good place for your dreams to become a reality. Why did you leave?
Reaksmey: I resigned in 2012 because I thought of creating something new for myself. I left Phare, but my love for arts was still intact. I started ‘Trotchaek Pneik’ which focused on artworks and exhibitions before I came to Phnom Penh. When I moved in to the capital, I worked in a gallery and brought artists together for exhibitions. Being a curator wasn’t considered special that time. I studied arts history in Britain and was then officially called a curator. After that, people started to value my knowledge in arts.
GoodTimes2: What does being a curator mean to you?
Reaksmey: Organising art exhibitions or doing work connected with the arts is like writing a book. It’s like a pile of knowledge you want to share with others. Working as a curator is like interpreting a book so that people will understand its meaning. My purpose is to share knowledge and create ideas with other artists. Curators work on different things. As for me, I prefer working on contemporary arts.
GoodTimes2: What challenges have you faced so far?
Reaksmey: When I was in Britain, I studied Southeast Asian Arts at SOAS University of London. I studied about Indian, Chinese and Southeast Asian art including works from Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Laos and Malaysia. While studying in SOAS I found similarities in the art and culture of Thailand and Cambodia.
I did not specifically study about art exhibitions. So as a curator, I challenged myself to learn how to host exhibitions successfully. But I didn’t know who to consult with back then. I have a few curator friends overseas but it was tough sometimes to discuss things with them.
But curators do not just mainly create exhibitions. We also need to help the artists generate income through their works. It was really hard in the beginning because I didn’t have connections and networks. But as time passed, I managed to build them up.
I also think the lack of specialized writers on arts and culture in the media industry is a challenge. The write-ups are vital for people to understand artists and their artworks.
Currently, I am focusing on physical artworks – pictures, paintings, sculpture and installations – rather than performing arts. I’ve been exhibiting artworks of Cambodian artists in Britain, Singapore, Thailand and Malta. I also sent some artworks to the US and France.
GoodTimes2: How did you manage your studies abroad?
Reaksmey: When I studied in Britain in 2014, I told myself not to be overambitious and to refrain from doing a lot of things simultaneously. I set a clear timeframe and just focused on my studies. I wanted to get as much knowledge as I could so that when the time came for my graduation I would already be ready to work. At the same time, I also tried to build networks with lots of people in the arts field.
After I graduated at the end of 2015, I went to work as personal assistant for a film design specialist at the shooting of the ‘First They Killed My Father’ movie. After that, I worked as a curator for a creative programme at the Java Creative Cafe.
GoodTimes2: What’s keeping you busy right now?
Reaksmey: Currently, I am studying Asian Arts at LASALLE College of Arts in Singapore. Before this, I was at the Institute of Southeast Asian Affairs at Chiang Mai University in Thailand. That was where I learned about Thai arts had a deeper understanding of Thai culture and politics. My education there was partly supported by Princess Samdech Norodom Arunrasmy, at that time.
In Singapore, my scholarship didn’t include accommodation allowance. My friends raised money to help finance part of my living expenses but Singapore is a very expensive place. I am now looking for jobs so I can support myself until I finish my 18-month course.
I also got help from the Cambodian Living Arts. They provided for my plane ticket to Singapore.
GoodTimes2: What are your plans after you graduate?
Mr Reaksmey: If given the chance, I want to go back to Britain and study Buddhist philosophy. I want to research about how it influences contemporary arts. I found a university there that specialises in Cambodian contemporary arts. If I don’t do that, I will come back to Cambodia. I will continue doing exhibitions. I also would love to teach at Phare Ponleu Selpak. I want to share my knowledge in contemporary arts and writing for the arts and reach out to the younger generation.