Nestled among three universities in Phnom Penh, a new café is attempting to become one of the new artistic hubs for young and upcoming Cambodian artists, who in many cases have been denied the opportunity to show off the labor of their efforts elsewhere.
Exploring K.E. café’s four floors, it is clear it’s designed for the university crowd, with dedicated meeting rooms and deconstructed coffees; there is even a slide between the second and third level for the particularly young at heart.
Owner Sakada Sam even spoke of how he was attempting to turn the café into a pokestop, a center players of current mobile game Pokemon Go would be able to find and catch virtual monsters.
It is on the top level, however, where the center of the café’s artistic activity emerges, thanks to the café’s Young Artists event, an exhibition designed to showcase the emerging talent in the Cambodian arts scene.
The exhibition’s director, Lomorpich Rithy, wanted to create a space for young artists to network and share ideas about emerging art in Cambodia, as many art spaces in Phnom Penh currently only cater to established artists.
“It’s very important because most art galleries in town mostly focus on professional artists, while young artists are left behind,” she said.
“Most of the art in town focuses on contemporary or foreigner art. K.E. cafe wants to create a community for young Cambodian artists.”
Rithy has had a long and prolific career in both contemporary and traditional Cambodian arts. The former producer for BBC Media Action founded the youth group Plerng Kob and with their efforts created the Bonn Phnum festival, a three-day traditional art event held over Khmer New Year that has drawn thousands and celebrated its third anniversary this year.
She said it was during Bonn Phnum when she found that many young Cambodians had nowhere to share their talents.
“We discovered and met a lot of young artists who could not find any platform to showcase their work, so we thought why not create a venue for them,” she said.
She found the perfect location at the newly opened K.E. Café on Kampchea Krom Boulevard close to the Royal University of Phnom Penh, the Institute of Technology and the Institute of Foreign Languages.
“The coffee shop is designed under the phrase of ‘Coffee with memories’. The decoration was designed to imitate a museum,” she said.
K.E. café’s owner Sam, who returned from studying business in New Zealand last year, says he was inspired by other countries in the way they nurture and preserve the arts and said it was a concept that seemed to be lacking in Cambodia where the government strives for economic rather than cultural prowess.
“I see how other countries preserve their culture, rather than just modernize,” he said.
He hopes exhibitions can help lay the foundation for the local Cambodian art scene, in turn educating Cambodians to develop a more critical and analytical eye when it comes to appreciating art.
“Our art is still growing, and we are so much influenced by other cultures and countries. So basically they (Cambodians) don’t really have the question ‘why?’ ‘Why this, why that?’ So we hopefully can at least bring that why question to our audience in the future,” he said.
The idea of why an exhibition like this was needed was of particular importance when speaking to both artists and patrons of the K.E. Young Artists exhibition.
For 21-year-old photographer Roly Touch, who showcased a series of street and abstract photography last week, Touch felt it was important to have events like the K.E. Young Artists exhibition, after feeling a lack of support in Cambodia while attempting to break into the film industry.
“I want to become a filmmaker, so my first step is photography and I am now looking for a good scholarship to apply for a film school or in the arts community in Phnom Penh. I still feel the limits in the support it gives, because many talented people need to find the way to spread their art to the public on their own,’ Touch said.
While Touch has managed to find success throughout a three-year photography career, putting hard-earned skills to use in a string of professional and volunteer positions as well as winning first place in the Street Photography category at the International Photo Clinic in Bangkok in 2014, Touch said emerging photographers need to have the courage to use and develop their creative instincts.
“I think rookie photographers should focus more on how to apply their creativity and thought to their photos,” Touch said.
“Take more time to practice, take risks, improve your skills, keep that passion tight and be independent in what you’re doing. Just put the fear down and go create your story.”
Uddam Pen, 20, whose paintings and digital artwork will feature at the exhibition this weekend, said it was a chance to demonstrate the bravery of young artists by experimenting with new mediums and art forms that would help generate a new discussion and a great networking opportunity for emerging artists.
“I believe that Cambodia can make a breakthrough in promoting creativity and originality in their artistry,” he said.
The second year Architectural Engineering student at Zaman University said many Cambodians took their culture’s rich artistic history for granted and hoped that the exhibition would break through pejorative ideas of art.
“It’s time for us to stop generalizing that artists are people entertaining themselves while getting paid. We as Khmer have the potential because we are rich in history, culture and diversity,” he said.
It was a sentiment that was echoed by the café patrons on Sunday night, many of them young students passionate about the arts, despite their fields of study and their parents’ lack of understanding.
“Back to our old generation. They came out from the war, so all they want to do is find a way to live, so they didn’t really care about this,” said 21-year-old law student Linda.
“I think this exhibition will inspire lots of people to come out and show they are not afraid to bring their creative ideas because before this, no one would really appreciate this.”
As 20-year-old I.T. student Many wandered around Touch’s photographs with reverence and appreciation, he said the exhibition was a rarity of an event that went beyond the classical art forms in the Kingdom.
“When I say ‘art’ to my friends and family, they mostly think of the traditional dancers in the museum or something, but what I see is different. Art can be anything more than just traditional,” he said.
“I think the exposure of art to the Cambodian people is still limited, but at least we are trying to push that on them.”
There is clearly a yearning by the younger generation of Cambodians to embrace the arts on a more intrinsic level, with Sam saying the K.E. Young Artist event has been completely booked up with young artist desperate to show their creative efforts for the next three months.
While his main business is coffee, he said he would be thrilled if artists turned to K.E. Café as an artistic hub.
“If it’s going to grow that way, I cannot stop it, because it’s a coffee shop. But artists love coffee, and if they love our coffee and the community grows because of that, it would be very exciting,” he said.
As the K.E. Young Artists event enters its third week, Sam and Rithy are already planning their next event to help young Cambodian artists push the boundaries of their craft even further, with efforts to reach out beyond Phnom Penh and into the provinces to search for new talent to show their efforts at K.E. Café.
“Art is something that we all have in mind, especially as Cambodians – we believe Cambodia, really could be a kingdom of wonder. Rich with a history of culture which we should embrace, our own art is a foundation and we should push it forward and change the perspective of traditional arts from the image of being old and boring,” Rithy said.
Additional reporting by Sotheavy Nou
August 12-14 Uddam Kuro Pen, Serey, Canvas/hand painting. August 19-21 Sereysopheak Kan, Piseth Keo, Oil Painting.
August 26-28 Pros Nix, Chum Sothea, Digital Art.
K.E. Café #739, Street 128, Exhibition Opens 18:30
I.T student, 20-year-old Many reflects on the artwork on display at K.E. Cafe. KT/Fabien Mouret