His gallery is a mixture of the traditional and the modern, the colourful and the monochromatic, abstract works and the portraits. With all that’s displayed in his white-painted space, the multitalented artist Em Riem is a breath of fresh air in Cambodia’s contemporary art scene.
As a child growing up amid violence, hunger and genocide during the Khmer Rouge period, Mr Riem found himself painting people, animals, trees and anything else his young mind could comprehend. From a tender age, he knew he had a knack for the arts.
He got a degree in graphic arts from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh and continued his art education in France. When he returned to Cambodia, he built X-EM design-La Galerie.
He has painted dozens of paintings inspired by the Khmer Rouge victims and the daily lives of Cambodians, traditional and modern. All his artworks, he said, represent the true history and culture of the kingdom.
But Mr Riem’s talent goes beyond painting. He has also carved a name for himself in sculpture, furniture design, ceramics and fashion. His gallery has become a home for all his creations for almost a decade now. And he’s not stopping just yet.
In fact, Mr Riem will be showcasing his talent in fashion design as he joins the Women’s Day 2018 Fashion Show on March 8 at the Aeon Mall.
“This time I want to show young Cambodians a new kind of fashion: a little bit of weaving like the old style used by the native people. I want to get inspiration from baskets or mats. I want to show them that this is the real Khmer culture. Because many young people think weaving is boring. But if I can turn it into something fashionable, they will like it,” Mr Riem said.
Mr Riem masterfully interlocks the loops of cloth ropes, forming diamond-shaped holes in different sizes. When he finishes his masterpiece, Mr Riem said, his dress will look sexy but sophisticated.
“It’s sexy. But I know my limitations in fashion because I respect Cambodian culture. I will make it into something that Khmers will like,” he said, smiling as he touches the unfinished wear. He will be showcasing other similarly weaved dresses at the event.
Mr Riem said that aside from re-introducing the art of weaving, he also wants to promote minimalist fashion to people, especially to young Cambodians.
“I see many young people wearing crazy clothes. They wear so many colours and so many styles that they have adapted from foreign cultures. It’s not Cambodian style,” he said.
He added that a minimalist fashion sense can lead to a healthier life for people.
“When you don’t dress up too much, you won’t feel the pressure to use so many products, too, because you just want a simple life. You will not be putting chemicals in your body and in your hair,” he said, noting that an out-of-the-box fashion does not necessarily mean using so many colours and fabrics.
“Just be simple and make sure what you wear represents your culture.”
Aside from weaved cloth ropes, Mr Riem has also long been known for his creative but cultural and environmentally friendly fashion. He once made skirts and dresses that resemble strips of banana leaves.
Mr Riem acknowledges that his fashion designs are not the typical style that most Cambodians will rush out and buy. But given his innate passion for the creative arts, he sees beyond the marketability and commercial appeal of his creations.
“I am not making these things for money. My paintings, artworks, furniture, clothes, all my works are not for money. If I want to earn, I can focus on teaching or do other businesses. But this is what I love to do. I want to show the true value of art, not commercial,” he said.
As he lets his models wear his creations on International Women’s Day, Mr Riem hopes that Cambodian women will see his designs as a tool for empowerment. The dresses are more than just dresses, he said, because they were made for the purpose of uplifting Cambodian women’s culture and lifestyle.
“I wish many people will choose minimalist fashion and minimalist way of living. Khmer women were like that before. But they still looked very beautiful. Khmers are beautiful people even if they don’t put too much on their faces and body.”
Aside from next week’s fashion event, Mr Riem is also busy preparing for several exhibitions of his paintings, designs and installations in the coming weeks.
He will be holding exhibitions at the French Embassy and Diamond Island. He is also now painting images of animal heads for another exhibit.
“I do so many things, but I don’t find it difficult to balance my work because I love doing each of them.”