Growing up in a simple and poor family, Em Riem survived the Khmer Rouge era of terror. Today he has become an art icon in Cambodia. In an interview with Khmer Times he outlines the path to his success.
Em Riem runs a gallery in the capital, a simple place with plain white walls, a metal roof and a few of his paintings, sculptures and furniture. It exudes a mixture of traditional and modern, colourful and monochromatic, abstract works and portraits. Unfortunately, Riem says he has had to keep his gallery closed during the pandemic.
“My morning starts with painting. In the afternoon I do graphic designing and then I come to the gallery to work on my paintings and sculptures. This is my life,” Riem explains.
“My real business is this art gallery, however, I cannot count my money daily with art. So, I also work as a graphic designer and a fashion designer,” he says.
Riem has many skills that he has accumulated over the years. He looks back to his childhood and reminisces on how his creative career began.
The soon to turn 50-year-old was born in July 1971. He grew up surrounded by civil unrest and danger.
“Maybe I was six or seven years old during the Khmer Rouge regime,” says the artist.
He and his family fled their hometown in Kandal province to the countryside in Battambang province, where they survived the regime.
Children at this time had no proper education or food to eat. They used to sleep on wooden floors with Khmer Rouge officials on guard to make sure no one could flee, he says.
“At night we were not even allowed to speak with our family. The officials used to cough loudly if they heard whispers and shouted that we must sleep,” he recalls.
He spoke of one incident where he was informed that his neighbour’s family tried to flee and go to the Thai border, but they were killed in the process.
Riem said he studied in one class along with his elder brother and sister for many years, as during that time they did not have a school building.
He stares outside his gallery smiling and says: “We children used to collect leaves and cow-dung to make manure and fertiliser for plants. Then later, we would all gather together in one place to study. Our classroom was under a mango tree. And when it rained, we ran to cut banana leaves to hold over our heads to protect ourselves, so we could sit and learn.”
As an outlet during these turbulent times, 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 has painted dozens of paintings inspired by Khmer Rouge victims and the daily lives of Cambodians, traditional and modern. All his artworks, he says, represent the true history and culture of the Kingdom.
However, his talent goes beyond painting. He is also a well-known name in the field of sculpture, furniture design, ceramics and fashion.
After the Khmer Rouge era was over, his family started making furniture. His father motivated him to learn the craft after school.
He was awarded a degree in graphic design from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh and continued his education in France.
When he went to France, initially no one knew about Cambodia, Angkor Wat or Phnom Penh. However, everyone was aware of the Khmer Rouge. So, he decided that he wanted people from different countries to know more about Cambodia.
He came up with the idea of wearing high heels and growing his hair long, creating his own signature look. He started modelling in fashion shoots and as a subject for artists. He hoped to use this image to draw new attention to Cambodia.
When he returned to Cambodia, he opened X-EM design-La Galerie. Riem has no limit to his creation and is successful in paintings, sculptures, fashion design and other disciplines. He takes his inspiration from the culture and history of the Kingdom.
Riem adds: “In 1997 I went to a modelling agency in Cambodia. It was a big step, as modelling was not famous or known in Cambodia. I wanted to set my own style, so I grew my hair long. People started calling me names and saying that I am crazy to have long hair with dark skin and trying to be a model.”
“Later a company Mobitel (now Cellcard), was looking for a model to advertise its phones. They selected me to be their model and my posters were spread across Cambodia as I was in adverts on television too. I became very famous during the period of 1998 –1999,” Riem says.
From that time he started setting his own rules for himself.
Today he has two children from two different partners. His daughter is six years old and his son is eight. “We all are one big happy family,” he says.
“My children know about me and know what I do. Initially my son was a little shocked to see me wear heels. However, when I explained to him that I do modelling, he started understanding. He has seen that lots of people know me and call me by my name. My son says he wants to be famous too. So, I tell him that he needs to work hard and earn himself a good name to be famous,” Riem adds.
“I am a model and I do fashion shows. I like to cross dress and wear high heels and jewellery. I do this to show our ancient culture and try to set a trend. People forget that in olden days, royal families also wore long robes.”
“I know people speak behind my back and say that I am crazy or gay. However, I know that I am normal and now I do not bother to react. It is difficult to explain new trends to the local crowd.”
He says: “Now as I am turning 50-years-old, I do not bother much with all these things. I do my own thing. I know my sense of style and I am happy with it. My children know my struggles. All I want is for my children to have a good, bright future and do what they love the most.”