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For many people, the last year has been a test of their endurance. This is why we think this recent interview with one of Cambodia’s most-celebrated artists, Em Riem, is so very timely as he talks about his latest exhibition, and what it takes to keep going even when we think we have little to work with.

“The painter should aim at universality”, said Leonardo de Vinci, and with his multidisciplinary techniques and visionary approach, Em Riem sets out to achieve this goal. One no longer needs to introduce him: a multi-faceted virtuoso whose great talent is matched only by his humility, he is presenting his latest works at the Sofitel Phokeethra in Phnom Penh.

About Em Riem

Until he was 15 years old Em Riem lived in the countryside where he worked in the rice fields and hunted frogs at night. Like all in his generation, he had a difficult childhood, marked by violence, hunger and death during the Khmer-Rouge era. But for Riem, some relief could be found in painting the people, animals, trees and anything around him that could distract his young spirit. Profoundly affected by this time, the young man of the fields, who grew up to become a renowned artist, chose to express his often intense emotions through art in all its forms, including weaving, fashion, and abstract and realist paintings dealing with diverse subjects, but all marked by a deep memory and unfailing attachment to his native land and its history. Interview:

Your latest exhibition titled Kambuja Exhibition. Could you tell us a few words about it?

I started working on the canvases in 2018. I chose rice bags as the basic material on which to create; really you can use anything to make art. I wanted to develop a minimalist style with two-dimensional characters inspired by the traditional Khmer paintings that decorate the interiors of pagodas and royal palaces. The main theme revolves around the story of the Buddha. I chose to represent him over a specific period, from the time he was born until he came to quit his birthplace.

The Birth of Buddha

According to the writings, Buddha originally lived in the royal palace whose walls he never left. When he finally did venture out for the first time, he observed terrible things that he had never faced before. Right then, he decided he no longer wanted to live behind walls but in the jungle, searching for a better life for others. Before he rose up and became the saint known to us all, the Buddha was simply a man.

Buddha as a Young Prince

The crown represents the development of the human being. The larger and more ornate, the more adult and wise the person. I followed the same path with the portraits of apsaras, which have an equally full crown. As for the costumes and clothing, these are inspired by the bas reliefs at Angkor.

Animals are omnipresent in your works. What do they signify?

In this story, we observe a lot of magic which we could interpret as mythology. The dog becomes a cat, which in turn transforms into a dragon. In this way we speak of reincarnation. I wanted to present the inhabitants of the palace with the animals because they are important in the Buddhist religion. I wanted to paint messenger birds that tell the news throughout the kingdom. Here for example, this lady is experiencing a drama after reading a message that was delivered. I wanted to express the tragedy, the anger through a simple portrait.

The Messenger Bird

I also chose cats because I particularly like their iris. It brings a certain complexity to the combination of colours. Being a designer, I’m particularly sensitive to the manipulation of the chromatic range.

“Moreover, with this series, we look at the canvases, but they also observe us through their eyes, it is part of the mystery”.

On the large canvas at the Sofitel entrance we find the king, father of the Buddha, in the company of a turtle. Among Buddhists, the turtle is one of the god Vishnu’s many avatars. He appears in this form when chaos threatens the kingdom, to allow warriors to fight without the discomfort caused by heavy rains. Among the innumerable engravings on Angkor Wat’s frescoes, one can see the help this god brought during the various conflicts that were taking place in the kingdom.

“Art is everywhere, in the forest, in the houses. As an artist, you see it in every domain”.

What are your sources of inspiration?

I’m inspired by the Khmer style, colonial photos, and also a lot by Cambodia’s history, the Khmer Rouge genocide and the victims it left behind. Like those we talk about in the books, I grew up in this time. Through this other outlet, painting, I want to share this tragedy that I live, sleep and think with. Everything abstract is ultimately inspired by Cambodia.

We can no longer put a number on your exhibitions. What is your approach to work?

I have shown here, but also in France, Italy, Washington, Singapore and also in Hong Kong for the “Asian Art Competition” which selected 15 artists to exhibit. That event takes place every three years. When I create, I don’t think of where my pieces might be shown, I exhibit everywhere. Usually, a lot of events happen in my gallery. Today, Sofitel has invited me to present this exhibition. It’s a godsend, because there is enough space for big canvases and, unlike my gallery, viewers can come 24 hours a day.

How do you see contemporary art in Cambodia?

In Phnom Penh, there are no or very few collectors. Nonetheless, the creative quality is expanding and with a tightly-knit collective and more exhibition spaces, there is a possibility to attract more art hunters to the kingdom. For my part, I integrate different styles in each of my works: the countryside, the Khmer Rouge, the abstract or figurative, history…

“I try to change the style because I refuse to sit on my heels. I’m constantly exploring other subjects or ideas”.

I vary my productions to show the evolution of Cambodian art. Sometimes I approach ideas I’ve already dealt with, but from a different angle.

A last word? What advice would you give a young artist who wants to begin their career?

Work hard and do your research. The materials are not important; it’s not necessary to have big canvases to start.

“Some people say they don’t have the money to buy materials, canvases, when in fact, you can create anything by yourself with a little effort”.

For example, for 2,000 riels you can buy rice sacks in a Battambang factory and make canvases. A lot of time is needed in a lot of projects in order to progress, there is no secret. Produce a lot and afterwards reflect, explore everything.