Modern world seldom reflects the true picture of the bygone era. This could not be truer for countries like Cambodia which have pasts so rich that their past worlds would be in stark contrast to their present states. Cambodia is one of the oldest places, that hosted humans, in the world. It has been in existence since the Stone Age. Remnants of farming have been found in Cambodia that indicates that it was practised almost five thousand years back, here. Such an old history had its obvious benefits. Cambodia had transformed into a mature society much before the western world did. The first millennium brought riches into the country with the advent of the Khmer Empire. This was culturally and socially an important phase in Cambodia’s history. The kings that ruled the country paid time, attention and money to the growth of the art in their kingdoms. The result what that art in Cambodia blossomed in these times. One of the biggest landmarks – The Angkor Wat – was built at this time. Cambodia was ravaged a lot of times in the second millennium by both Vietnam and Thailand and somehow lost the growth, prosperity and the culture of art that it has gained earlier.
The modern history of Cambodia is fraught with large problems. With the advent of the 20th century, Cambodia was under French occupation, which struggled with the Japanese attempts at Cambodian occupation. Both of these regimes gave way to the country’s independence only around the mid of the century. Despite these, the region saw growth both in terms of art and technology. The French built roads and railways. There was some sort of support for art as well in the first half of the 20th century. School of Cambodian Arts which later came to be called as the University of Fine Arts was established in the ’40s. There was support from the governing regimes for these initiatives. Art galleries were opened too in this period. However, a lot of horrific damage was caused to the art culture as was to the whole society during the Khmer Rouge for almost 3 decades, starting around somewhere in the 70’s. Almost all of the art was wiped out in Cambodia in this period. Period post the Khmer Rouge saw some resurgence in the field of art in Cambodia with institutions such as Phare Ponleu Selpak Arts Centre opening up.
Nhek Dim is one of the earliest known artists from Cambodia from the pre-Khmer Rouge era and has been an inspiration for many artists. Vann Nath is one of the most popular artists who survived the Khmer Rouge regime. Svay Ken is another respected artist who is from the same era. A rather dynamic current art scene in Cambodia is being dominated by artists who like to experiment – Khvay Samnang who works with human hair, Tith Kanitha who works with wire and mosquito nets and Than Sok whose works tools such as include incense sticks. A lot of artists are still under-recognized. Then there are artists such as Leang Seckon and Pich Sopheap who are making a name of themselves far and wide.
The thriving art scene has seen a growth of many art centres and galleries too in Cambodia in last 2 decades. Institut Français du Cambodge’s (IFC) Centre Culturel Français and National Museum of Cambodia (built in 1920) are some of the oldest modern art centres in Cambodia. Meta House is one of the biggest art galleries in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. Bophana Center and Theams House are also well known in the art circles.