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Photo of Reaksmey Yean courtesy of រូបថត | ©Norm Phanith, 2017

Why we need a language for art

I am a Cambodian-American. Though I speak Khmer, I cannot read and write. I don’t have access to the intellectual history nor the linguistic development of the Khmer language.  I am literate in English since it’s the first language that I learned to read and write in because I came to the US at the age of ten. I was educated in American schools, starting in fifth grade.

During the Khmer Rouge, I was put into a children’s labor camp. Schooling was forbidden, so I had only started to learn Khmer when I returned to Cambodia for the first time to work as a volunteer in 1994. I remember how necessary I was as someone who could liaise between international and local NGOs because I could converse in Khmer and speak, read, and write English. I remember how awkward it was to translate or to interpret, and to be understood by locals due to my inconsistent use of English mixed with Khmer, overflowing with hand and facial gestures. 

After my volunteer term was over, I returned to the US in 1996, and I took a SEASI course at the University of Madison, Wisconsin to improve my Khmer reading, speaking, and writing skills. Since then, I have lived off and on in Cambodia, working as a self-taught artist in the growing contemporary art scene of Cambodia, mostly in Phnom Penh and Battambang.

One year, I was hired by Phare Ponleu Selapak as an interpreter of their theater for a development program. Before this, I also acted as an interpreter for numerous reporters writing about Cambodia. It was a combination of this experience that led me to think seriously about the Khmer language and how it adapted and changed over the centuries, with influences coming at it from various directions. Every stage of the country’s history must have shaped and formed the progression of the language in some ways. 

I started to recognize some words borrowed from the French, like nom pain, for bread or baguette, like Belle or Beau for names, like sandwiches or Cadeau for a present. Examples are numerous, and so are the influences from neighboring countries, from Sanskrit, Tamil, Hokkien, and others. A language isn’t fixed or written in stone. It appropriates and borrows from other languages and turns words into their usage, with meaning and definition. Words old and new get introduced and reintroduced into people’s lives, especially in the contemporary art of today’s Cambodia. 

I find it difficult to translate certain English words into Khmer, partly due to my limitations in the Khmer language, and partly because the words that I was looking for didn’t exist, at least not in the way that Khmer speakers could understand their meanings or contexts. Instead, I often translate what I thought to convey the feeling or sense of that word, like the word ‘play’, le khon niyeah, which translates back to ‘spoken theater’. 

If I were to give a training, for example, using Theater of the Oppressed by Brazillian writer, Augusto Boal, in the 70s, I would have to develop an entire theatrical framework in Khmer to be introduced to Khmer participants and devote a large chunk of time training and developing the language in which to acquire the same results as those who had years of experiences towards getting at ‘truth’ through theater. How to get people to move, gesture, understand and see themselves in roles not normally seen or felt by their allotted impoverishment or sense of powerlessness in the world or simply in their immediate community – trapped in a given political, social, and economic system. 

Art is a language in itself, and the Khmer civilization is full of it. Their Angkorian power showed the world that they were a very sophisticated group of thinkers, philosophers, scientists, artisans, dancers, and builders. Their language and their words to describe everything, even the cosmology of things, is buried to be unearthed by the newer generations. Yet, because of the many interruptions due to war and internal ideological conflicts, the studies and research are neglected and the continuation and progression of the language are insufficiently documented. 

Within the last forty years there has been a progression in Khmer studies, in history and science, and in the field of anthropology, arts, performance, and the visual arts. These are reshaping or reawakening the old lexicons and inspiring new ones to take shape. The new is often faced with resistance. Khmer scholars rely mostly on Chuon Nath as the reference and father of Khmer linguists. No one since Chuon Nath had documented or added new words into his dictionary.

Theary Seng, a young practicing lawyer, had once written a convincing argument for a new way of writing Khmer using space, period, and commas like that of English. Most Khmer scholars scoffed at her and dismissed it as a joke because they saw no need to change or add to their traditions and writing form. There has also been discussion around the purity and impurities of Khmer, in particular the Vietnamization of Khmer and their attempts to simplify the written form by taking away certain unnecessary vowels and useless muted script. That was very controversial and sensitive like an assault on Khmerness.  Whereas, a country like South Korea, developed their language so it was easier for people to learn, to speak, read and write based on the natural shape of their mouth and the sounds that come out of their throats. 

Theary Seng argued that the way a group of people writes is linked to the clarity of thoughts. A pause holds meaning. A full stop means exactly a full stop. Khmer, as it is written, is a long line of words strung together, and it’s up to the reader to do his or her pauses. There’s a symbol for a period, but there’s no other stops or pauses. The way a language is written coveys concise ideas, meanings, and definitions of a phrase or word. To change and adapt or accept the natural movement of each language, there needs to be greater discussion, research, and documentation that follow and trace the progression of Khmer where modern usage of new words is as relevant as the old documented version of terminology. Now, with new technology, young people are also writing and reading far more different than the older generations. Accepting these changes and the fact that a language can adapt and create new ways of expression is key to the future of Khmer and their cultural, political, and economic milieu of wanting to catch up with the rest of the world. 

Who will lead us towards a new language for art?

One young man who is trying to do just that is Yean Reaksmey, born in Battambang, and now working as an independent art curator, researcher, and writer. He has been working, with the support of some friends and art lovers, particularly Irina Chakraborty, to establish a semi-commercial and semi-community art gallery in Phnom Penh, called Silapak Trotchaek Pneik (Art that cools or pleases the eyes). He also serves in an advisory committee of research as a junior specialist for the higher education part of the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport. 

He is well versed both in Khmer and English. He loves reading, especially on art, philosophy, and theoretic works. He aspires to become a writer of historical fiction. He is one of the rare Cambodian curators, such as Yuth Lyno of SaSa Art Projects and Meta Moeng

Here, you have the idea of curation, of putting visual art on display, of gathering meanings, purpose, or intentions each artist renders. Here, the idea of the historical framework comes into play, visually, what is this artist is trying to say? What do these gestures convey? The three-dimensional conversation around art and its metaphors, the reality versus the dream, the perpetrator versus the victim or the denigration of victimhood, the resistance of revolutionary idea and knowledge, the secrets an individual artist holds, the way the artist changes how a viewer thinks and responds, space, color, composition – all of this is part of curation. Yet Khmer curation must emerge from within and not fall prey to becoming confined by European or so-called Western standards and notions of art.

One can curate a limitless form of human expressions, as they are reflected in our day to day reality, how we interact with the things we see and feel, how we are moved to tears by certain forms of enchantment. What inspires one artist to another? To curate a work requires digging, researching, learning, prying into the affairs of individual artists who carve or sculpt, who paint and mold clay into form, who craft sawdust into something useful, who spray paint a wall to get a message into the public view. This type of curation, of gathering, showing and discussion is only the beginning. The world is changing and nations are no longer in isolation. 

Yean Reaksmey, is an upcoming blazing Khmer curator. He studied at SOAS, University of London, focusing on arts from Cambodia and all of the Southeast Asian region. He did Thai studies, both linguistic and cultural, at Chiang Mai University, and finally at LASALLE College of the Arts, where he studied contemporary and modern art history of Southeast Asia.  He recently revamped the defunct-art-collective, Trotchaek Pneik, he started with other classmates in 2011.

When I first met him while working as an interpreter at Phare Ponleu Selapak, I was at awe of his command of Khmer and how well he spoke. At the time, he was an assistant to the organizer and  was already curating an entire festival called Tini Tinou , a circus show that got international acclaim. It brought many visitors to Phare. And while he was doing this, he was thinking and reflecting on the word ‘organizer’, while his role was actually that of a curator. At the time, curation wasn’t a word he had known.

This took him into many offered opportunities. In 2012 and 2013, he met Kate O’Hara and Dana Langlois, who introduced him to the idea of becoming a curator. What does it mean to curate something? That landed him a curator-in-residence at Java Creative Café in 2013. Since then, he has been studying art history so he can help strengthen and sustain healthy growth of arts in Cambodia. While working at Phare Ponleu Selapak, people asked him about Cambodia’s past, culture, and heritage, but he knew very little about it. He and the teachers, the artists didn’t know much. Was there any art movement in Cambodia? Who did what? Who wrote what? There were a lot of missing links. He set out to seek answers and become a curator, with some help from Ashley Thompson, who pointed out to him some essential elements in giving and providing historical context to enrich the cultural and artistic sphere of modern Cambodia.   

Since then, he has coined and repurposed some lexicons or terminologies in describing what he does, such as the words curation, curator, curating and so on. That didn’t exist before, and if they did, they were buried somewhere beneath the relics of the Khmer Empire. He had to go on a quest, and not everyone agreed or liked what he found. It may be a curse or a blessing. Resistance is natural, but at least it will spark discussions or healthy debates on how to approach the water of heritage, language, and modern art, what is Khmer, what is Khmer identity, what is Khmer culture, who represents what? 

Everything is born of ideas, inspiration, and curiosity. Introducing new ideas and new words can face obstacles, but Yean sees it as a public relations campaign to improve on old systems and create ones that are adaptive, thought-provoking, reflective, and sensually pleasing when implemented into the hearts and minds of those making art. Yean thinks about art beyond the confinement and ethnocentricity of Khmerness by connecting the dots, the missing links to an entire whole Khmer people seeking to mobilize and unify as they move into a global chain of freedom and pluralism. Art is a kind of window a curator opens to a wider view. 

Here are a few terms that he coined/reused/repurposed to make his job a bit easier. 

 គទានុរក្ស (curator)

គទានុរក្សា (curate)

គទានុរក្សភាព (curatorship/curatorial)

ឋបនកម្ម (installation)

សិល្បៈទេសន៍ (Performance Art)​

គន្ថចារ (catalog)

វិចិត្រភាព (elegant)

ថេរភណ្ឌ (Masterpiece)

លំអានជក (brushstroke)

ក្រសែ (contour)

ឯកលក្ខណៈ (Unique) 

Yean Reaksmey comes in a package that is well suited for his task.  He seems to know everyone, from the famous to the Khmer villagers, and is a natural at marketing his talents. With a self-aware tongue-in-cheek attitude, he is versed at sharing his thoughts and getting attention in the media and high-end magazines like SOVRIN. Using his good looks, sharp mind, and his infamous bountiful head of hair he has gained both respect and popularity. Those of us looking towards the future of Cambodia are counting on his voice.



Photo Courtesy of Leak Khmer Artisan