The Poetic Activism Of Cambodian Artist Khvay Samnang

Khvay Samnang, Rubber Man, 2014, digital Print, 80 x 120 cm. © and image courtesy of the artist.
Khvay Samnang, Untitled, 2011, video. © and image courtesy of the artist.
Khvay Samnang, Untitled, 2011, video. © and image courtesy of the artist.
Khvay Samnang, Rubber Man, 2014, digital Print, 80 x 120 cm. © and image courtesy of the artist.
Khvay Samnang, Preah Kunlong (The Way of the Spirit), 2017, two-channel video installation with masks. © Khvay Samnang. Image courtesy of the artists.
Khvay Samnang, Preah Kunlong (The Way of the Spirit), 2017, two-channel video installation with masks. © Khvay Samnang. Image courtesy of the artists.
Khvay Samnang, Popil 2018, two-channel video installation with masks. © and image courtesy of the artist.
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

Cambodian multidisciplinary artist Khvay Samnang engages with the humanitarian and ecological crises in his native country, Southeast Asia, and beyond. His surreal filmscape and narratives, set in beautiful rural landscapes, appear like legends out of folklore, with dancing performers wearing woven vine animal masks. At the same time, a tinge of irreverent humour drives his artistic voice, with scenes where he empties buckets full of sand, rubber or air over his head in the middle of a forest, a lake or an urban park. We look at his oeuvre to discover its links to politics, colonialism, migration, and climate change, as well as their impact on local communities. 

TEXT: C. A. Xuân Mai Ardia
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist

 

Trained as a painter at the Royal University of Fine Art in Phnom Penh, Khvay Samnang (b. 1982, Svay Rieng, Cambodia) works with sculpture, photography and the moving image. Although painting is not part of his practice, there are traces of his painterly eye in his poetic films, delicately “brushed” and “inked” as if on canvas. His oeuvre offers new perspectives on historic and current events as well as traditional cultural rituals from Cambodia. Thoroughly research-based, Samnang’s practice involves investigations into local specificities, histories and conditions, focusing on the socio-ecological impacts of colonialism and globalisation.

Samnang is also a founding member of Stiev Selapak, an art collective dedicated to reappraising and remembering Cambodian history, while exploring continuities in visual practices disrupted by civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime. In 2010 and 2011, Stiev Selapak set up two nonprofit art spaces in Phnom Penh: Sa Sa Art Projects, for experimental residencies, knowledge-sharing and community-based programmes; and SA SA BASSAC, a gallery, resource centre and reading room.

 

Remembering Cambodia’s Violent Past 

With the human condition at the core of his concern, the artist engaged with the most delicate moments in Cambodia’s socio-political past during the first years of his artistic career, with one of his earliest works stemming out of the country’s most violent period. The single-channel video Reminder (2008) collects the portraits of 800 students from Chea Sim High School in Phnom Penh he photographed for their graduation. The students observed that their images resembled prisoner mugshots from S-21, currently the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, the site of a former high school that was converted into a prison and interrogation centre during the Khmer Rouge regime (1975–79). The KR imprisoned and tortured an estimated 17,000 people in Tuol Sleng, before sending them off to their death.  

The work reconnects the viewer with the traumatic memory of the regime and the genocide, visually recalling the portraiture of victims as seen at the museum today. The artist elaborates that in Phnom Penh, schools don’t take students to visit Tuol Sleng, nor they teach much about the Khmer Rouge. However, “when young people think of Tuol Sleng, they always recall the portraits.”

 

Khvay Samnang, Untitled, 2011, video. © and image courtesy of the artist.
Khvay Samnang, Untitled, 2011, video. © and image courtesy of the artist.

 

The Ubiquitous Bucket

In 2011, Samnang introduced an element that later became a unique feature in many of his works commenting on the socio-ecological crises in his native country. The artist started photographing and filming himself in specific environments while emptying a bucket onto his head.  

Untitled (2011) addressed issues of land reclamation, water filling and forced evictions. Specifically, the artist researched the case of Boeung Kak Lake, where he used to go with his parents as a child. There were also many other lakes in Phnom Penh, which was once a lake itself, later filled and transformed into a city. Land reclamation has become a serious issue, as the country favours rapid development and urbanisation, often ignoring the consequences. Since 2008, Boeung Kak Lake and other major water basins have been filled entirely with sand, forcibly evicting over 4000 low-income families from Boeung Kak Lake alone.

In Untitled, Samnang portrays himself dipped in the water of various lakes, pouring a bucket of sand over his head, an act that symbolises what is taking place, its implications and the futility of his repeated gesture as protest against an unmovable political willpower. The work is currently showcased as part of his solo show “Dancing the Land” at ifa Gallery Stuttgart, while a five-channel video installation was shown as part of the 2013 Singapore Biennale “If the World Changed”.

The bucket is also featured in another work, Air (2011), and Rubber Man (2014), the latter commissioned by Paris’s Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume for its “Satellite 8” series.

 

Khvay Samnang, Rubber Man, 2014, digital Print, 80 x 120 cm. © and image courtesy of the artist.

 

Samnang also engages with realities that attract his interest and attention beyond Cambodia, such as in Air, where he addresses the nuclear disaster in Fukushima and its aftermath. Only months after the earthquake, he travelled to the Japanese prefecture to research the stories of many elderly residents who refused to leave their now-toxic land behind. Samnang captured himself pouring a bucket of air over his head in nine different locations, confronting the fragile relationship between humanity and nature. In a description of the work, curators Roger Nelson and Erin Gleeson wrote, “Khvay is surrounded by nature, yet always with a reminder of human presence: trees stand on cleared land, hills are crested by communications towers, rivers are crossed by Khvay’s video shows the artist in motion: entering a landscape for one purpose, and then exiting only to enter another landscape, for the same purpose.”

Engaging with the colonial legacy of land use, Rubber Man (2014) brings the artist back home, where he confronts contested lands and ancestral forest spirits. The work’s historical context is the privatisation of Khmer monarchy’s land by French Indochina in 1884, in preparation for the country’s first ever rubber plantation concession in 1922. Most plantations are located in the adjacent northeastern provinces of Mundulkiri and Ratanakiri, populated by ethnic minorities. As a result of industrialization, their land has been vastly expropriated and deforestation has given space for cultivations. Local populations have lost their ancestral forests, home to spirits they worship and sites where their ancestors are buried. Today, there are organisations that map the land to locate these sacred spots, in order to try and protect them from disappearing.

Samnang recounts how he dreamed of a man covered in white paint leading him into a forest with perfectly aligned trees, and when he travelled to Ratanakiri, he saw the exact environment from his dream. In Rubber Man the artist becomes that painted man, covered in white liquid rubber he pours onto his naked body in various rural locations, walking like a forest spirit from one place to the next, as if mapping the destruction and displacement.

 

Khvay Samnang, Preah Kunlong (The Way of the Spirit), 2017, two-channel video installation with masks. © Khvay Samnang. Image courtesy of the artists.
Khvay Samnang, Preah Kunlong (The Way of the Spirit), 2017, two-channel video installation with masks. © Khvay Samnang. Image courtesy of the artists.

 

Masked Identities

With his photographic series “Human Nature” (2010–2011), Samnang introduced yet another element that would become a trademark of his practice—the mask. The artist photographed residents in their living spaces at the Bassac Municipal Riverfront Apartments—aka “The White Building”, a government housing project built in the 1960s. Today, the overcrowded structure houses 4,000 family units, many of whom are victims of social prejudice. The individuals captured in his photos are all masked, leaving their identities ambiguously concealed within their living quarters, offering a reflection on Cambodia’s social issues.

However, it is not until later that the elaborate animal masks he is known for appear in his oeuvre. With Preah Kunlong (The Way of the Spirit) (2016-2017), commissioned by documenta 14, Samnang dives deep into folklore and local communities while investigating geopolitical and ecological issues. The artist explores the unique situation of the Indigenous Chong people in the southwestern province of Koh Kong in the Areng Valley, located in the last great forest in Cambodia and the largest remaining expanse of rainforest in Southeast Asia. The valley, home to ample natural resources and rare wildlife, is plagued by political inequality and a threat of environmental devastation and endangering of Indigenous life and culture due to the Cheay Areng Dam project. Samnang and dancer/choreographer Nget Rady create a form of “countermapping”—challenging dominant power structures—by incorporating the Chong communities’ relationships with particular animals, waters and lands. Nget performs traditional Cambodian dance in rural settings while wearing different animal masks made of woven vines, forming part of the whole installation and later replicated in recycled bronze in a 2019 commission by Nova Contemporary for Samnang’s solo show “A Forest of Spirits”.

 

Khvay Samnang, Popil 2018, two-channel video installation with masks. © and image courtesy of the artist.

 

Popil (2018), commissioned by Haus der Kunst for its “Capsule” exhibition series, sees two dancers engage in the classical Khmer “Robam kbach boran” dance for rain and fertility, choreographed around the symbolism of the dragon. The mythological creature has deep roots in the traditions of Asia, and Cambodia is no exception. In Popil, the dragon takes on both a local and an adopted significance from Chinese communities, as both a protector and a destroyer. The dance is characterised by overtly curved and curled gestures, mimicking the sinuous movement of the serpent and the flow of water. The dancers enact a contemporary love story of two dragons—representing Cambodia and China. Their movements mimic the flow of the nation’s major rivers from Northeastern Cambodia to Phnom Penh to Southeastern Cambodia, as well as the circulation of capital throughout the nation. Wearing dragon vine masks, the performers remap complex geographies and cultural rites representing the intricate relations between the two countries.

Commissioned by the National Gallery of Singapore for the Children’s Biennale, Samnang’s latest work Calling for Rain (2021) is a poetic reinterpretation of Reamker, the Cambodian version of the epic poem Rāmāyana from ancient India, in which performers don the artist’s traditional vine masks. The film follows Kiri (“The Monkey”) on his quest to save the dying forest and its surrounding environment, from the moment he meets and falls in love with KongKean (“The Fish”), to when he is faced with the irresponsible behaviours of Aki (“The Fire Dragon”). 

All of Samnang’s narratives engage with local traditions, stories and folklore, to address issues of socio-political, humanitarian and ecological concern, while uncovering connections to globalisation, colonialism and migration in the Southeast Asian region. His oeuvre is that of a poetic activist who gives voice to local communities, bringing awareness to the constant threat imposed on them and their environment in the face of breakneck economic development and careless political decision-making.

 

 

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