Due the prolonged civil war and a “cultural revolution” of a genocidal regime, many forms of arts in Cambodia, especially the traditional ones, have always been on the brink of vanishing. There has not been much support, and many artists have given up their passion because of their financial struggles. However, several enthusiasts refused to see these artistic legacies disappear and thus have been keeping their noses to preserve them. However, they are now facing a ferocious enemy, the biggest foe they have ever fought and it is called COVID-19. Are our heroes winning or losing? No one but time can tell, writes Taing Rinith.
Two months ago, in a small theatre on the compound of the National Library of Cambodia, a group of Cambodian artists from Kok Thlok Association of Artists was entertaining the audience, comprising mostly French nationals, with the performance of Sbek Touch, a traditional shadow puppet play. The audience let out a loud laughs when the artists made the silly characters fight one another and gave a big round of applause once the show was finished. The chairman of the artist association than came upon the stage to thank the audience.
The chairman, Phoeung Komphak, is also a Professor of French Language at the Institute of Foreign Languages and the actor who played the Father in Angelina Jolie’s Golden Globe-nominated First They Killed My Father. All of his artists friends, meanwhile know the 43-year-old as a dedicated backer of Khmer traditional arts, especially the kingdom’s shadow theatre.
Since March last year, Kok Thlok Association of Artists has been giving shadow puppets and Yike (a form of Khmer traditional musical theatre) at the National Library in order to showcase these forms of art to the young generation while also helping the artists generate some income from the ticket sales.
But, now, all the seats in the small theatre are empty; there is no laughter, no cheers, and no applause as performances are no longer given amid the fear of COVID-19.
“We stopped performing even before the government announced for the people to avoid public gatherings,” Kompheak says. “The safety of artists and the audience is our priority.”
Since the discovery of the first COVID-19 case in the Kingdom in January, the government has ordered the temporary shutting of schools, nightclubs, museum, cinemas, casinos, and gyms. Many public event, including public art performances, have been either cancelled or postponed, given that people have been urged to avoid gathering in public.
Although all the 80 artists in Kompheak’s association are safe from the pandemic, they are suffering from bad-turned-worse financial problems.
“Everyone knows that it is hard to make a living as a traditional artist,” Kompheak says. “Our artists have been relying on the income from their performances at the National Library, but we did not have it in the past few months.”
The artists at the Kok Thlok Association are even having a hard time feeding themselves—let alone paying their rent– as their performances have also been cancelled. For months now, Kompheak, is still committed to preserving the traditional art and has been paying for their food and rent out of his own pocket, but it will not be long until his pocket is empty.
“I know it is almost impossible to ask people for help since everyone is having a hard time, but our artists, the backbone of the country’s art, only need enough to eat,” Kompheak says. “We need only about 1.5 tonne of rice and some dried ration.”
In the meantime, Sou Savang, a retired 77-year-old multidisciplinary artist and the founder of the National Cultural Movement Association, is also calling for help in order to feed more than 50 orphans and underprivileged children in his organisation. For almost 20 years, Savang and his wife have saved those children from life on the streets and exploitation and trained them to become professional artists. Their livelihood rely on the money from their performances, but they are making naught at the moment.
“No one hires us to perform traditional dance or music now because of the pandemic, ”Savang says. “All our bookings have also been cancelled.”
Without any income, except for his pension, Savang’s saving is drying up, as he has been using it to pay for the house rent and children’s food. If the crisis goes on for more than one month, he will have to go bankrupt.
“To be honest, it has never been easy raising these children to become the protectors of our ancestors’ artistic heritage, but at least it has never been this tough,” he says. “I really wish some wealthy people would help us because I don’t want the children synonymise a career in art field with poverty and even worse, give up.”
Modern arts are stricken too
Nicolas Mesterharm, a German filmmaker, opened the much-loved German Cambodian Cultural Center, better known as Meta House, in 2007 to respond to a shortage of art galleries in the capital. After more than a decade, his art space has grown to become a hub of creative exchange, where many of the young and upcoming artists, from contemporary painters to photographers, made a name for themselves. Yet, all of these do not prevent it from the economic impacts of COVID-19 pandemic.
“Due to the virus, we have to cancel events with more than 20 artists to prevent people from gathering and spreading the virus,” Nicolas says. “It is not good at all for the art scene and the art centre.”
“But, it is even worse for the artists, who are depending on incomes on a freelance basis. Of course, at the moment, people need to care about their health than arts, but our artists make a living from the art.”
Nicholas adds that if the coronavirus does not show any signs of decline in the next several months, many galleries, including those in Phnom Penh, will have to close.
“The situation is looking bad for everybody,” he says.
Matthew Robinson, the legendary British filmmaker who is now running Khmer Mekong Films production in Phnom Penh, had to halt the filming of his latest Bollywood-style feature, Dance Till You Drop, after the government ordered all cinemas in the country to shutter to contain the virus.
Matthew has been losing money for months, but as a positive person, he is still seeing hope. He has even contributed $5,000 to the government to fight the virus which has infected over a million people globally.
“I see that the government is doing a great job, and I strongly hope that everything will be back to normal soon,” Matthew says. “In fact, I feel much safer living in Cambodia than living in my home country.”
Everyone is suffering
Long Ponnasirivath , the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts spokesperson, says he understands Cambodian artists are struggling amid the pandemic outbreak, but “everyone is suffering now”.
“I think only a small number of artists are struggling because many artists are contributing to the cause of combatting COVID-19,” he says.
“However, the government is doing whatever it can to help the artists with financial problems such as by giving them tax break.”
Meanwhile, the heroes who have been sacrificing a lot to preserve and promote the arts in Cambodia can only pray for a better tomorrow, where COVID-19 no longer haunt their dreams and passions.