Fish Island (Trey Koh) is a provincial community in the very south of Kampot town in Cambodia. Water buffaloes grazing amongst salt fields and rice paddies, workers collecting salts in the bright sun, fishing boats lining up at the horizon. It’s a beautiful, dreamy location and a great place to meet the locals and to realize that behind this serene scenery a much harsher reality unfolds.
An attentive eye notices burning trash piles, old fishing nets, plastic waste, and household garbage littering river banks, seashore, and rice fields. New houses emerge at various locations, but older houses often look decrepit and close to collapse. Few productive employment opportunities are available to local youth, who often lack basic skills and have to start their working life in their early teens.
Kek Soon (the Khmer name is typically spoken and written in the order of the last name then first name), born and raised in the community, founded the Fish Island Community Art Centre that she runs together with Julien Poulson. She is up to the challenge to bring out a positive change through education, hospitality, and arts training. Kek Soon works to nurture young talents from underprivileged families, who in turn find a welcoming roof and a place at a table, and most importantly, a warm heart and a steady hand that will help them navigate the uncertain waters of the age when most important life choices are to be made.
Soon’s ambitious vision as a self-made artist, a community leader, and a young entrepreneur is remarkable, and this is amply demonstrated by the work of the young creatives under Soon’s guidance at FICAC, who demonstrate their talent through the amazing works that they are each producing.
Amid the Covid pandemic, the community center struggled a lot, due to lost income from tourism, lay-offs, school closures, and other restrictions. This also meant some initial fear and misunderstanding of the center’s mission by the locals. Soon did not give in to hardships. Motivated by the difficult situations many families and kids found themselves in, she organized food relief programs and built community trust.
She began new workshops and a highly visible art exhibition for her young and aspiring artists to bring about awareness of waste management and recycling. Rubbish, plastic, and other found objectives were presented in artistic ways.
The FICAC artists set to work by collecting trash from around the streets, villages, and on the beaches close by the center: discarded boards, drink cans, plastic bottle caps, and other, less identifiable things, combined to create exciting and original artworks and an exhibition.
Srey Khun (20 years old), a nascent artist, won the first prize in FICAC recycled art competition. Her very first artwork “Lovers” features two young people who are happily engaged with each other. She came to the center about 5 months ago and now she lives there as well. She learns English, being a proper barista, cooking, sewing, and, of course, art. Srey Khun says; “I come here because there is more food and good living here. At home, my parents have many problems and I became very depressed before I joined the center. Here I feel good and supported”. Her well-earned first place is not solely due to her painting but also because of her prominent role as a novice model for the Trash Fashion photo project.
When asked what inspired Soon Kek to do the Trash Fashion show, she answers, laughing: “As a young girl, I always wanted to be a fashion designer. I wanted to create beautiful and interesting clothes in different shapes. I never had the opportunity to do any formal study or training though. But now, we have created our opportunity and we just wanted to try and see what we can do. We did the first photo shoot and posted the images on Facebook and the reactions that came were so inspiring that we set out to do more! … This is very very new for Cambodia. We did not only use garbage and found objects to make the costumes but we painted a new face on every model. They look weird. Scary, even. At first, it was also the time of Pchum Ben festival (Cambodian Day of The Dead). People in the community saw us traipsing the streets, with faces painted and wearing these strange outfits, they screamed: “Ghosts are coming!” But then they start recognizing them and liking it. One lady said to a model “You are my idol!”.
Soon Kep hopes from her heart that these public actions will help the community to better understand the role the FICAC center can play in community development and also become more aware of the plastic and pollution they create daily. “Community members start asking questions about recycling, and this is the first step”.
Soon explains further: “I tell my students – you have to be the best in what you do. This gets to people! If you are crazy – be the best crazy. I want to activate their potential and push them to test their limits. People can only learn when they are a bit out of their comfort zone. They have to try, try their best, and work hard!”
Soon Kek wants to promote Fish Island and is proud of her home base and its beauty. “We also want the community to know us and understand what we are trying to do. We did lose some children after their parents saw us… But others come and stay. It is their choice. We also traveled around the Kampot province, shooting in various locations in town, in and around Kep, at Veal Pouch waterfalls, etc. It is great fun for the students too! After they got over their first shock – they dare and dare more! This is inspiring and so wonderful to see.”
Another nascent model, Pisey, age 19, came to FICAC about 2 months ago. He has a lot of problems in his family and had previously escaped finding work in Phnom Penh. However, it was a poor experience when he was facing abuse and discrimination and wasn’t paid for the months of work he did. Discouraged and disappointed, he came back to Kampot and his sister (Srey Muth, also a student and artist at the center) convinced him to join FICAC, because the situation at home is still far from perfect, in part due to his gender identity. “I have so much more acceptance here, freedom to express myself, opportunities to learn and develop. … In these months, I am learning painting, photography, hospitality, and language skills. I dream to be a real model, to participate in a trendy fashion show!”
Their next art project idea is a Natural Fashion show, using beautiful landscapes of Cambodia and natural materials as inspiration and to show that ‘we are not apart from nature but are one with nature”.
The FICAC is also active in community service and Soon and her team put time into collecting rubbish to clean up the streets around the center. “Neighbourhood – clean, village – clean, city – clean!” is the campaign motivation encouraging artistic expression, self-esteem, and working towards creating a healthy and safe environment for everyone, no matter their origin, gender, or belief system.
As of November 2021, Cambodia is finally open to tourists. Please consider visiting Kampot and spending time with Soon Kep and the young people and volunteers that make this place meaningful and full of life and hope. Prints of the young artists’ works are available to sell and send around the world.
Savor the fashion and artworks of the bold and brave young participants at Fish Island Community Arts Centre.
Scroll and enlarge the art in the gallery below:
About the Author
Olga Skriabikova is a researcher, nature lover, and adventure-seeker.
Raised in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine, she obtained her Ph.D. in Labour and Empirical Economics from Maastricht University in the Netherlands, subsequently working in various public institutions in the Netherlands for more than 10 years. Currently, she lives in a small town in the south of Cambodia, where she pursues her new ambitions in sustainable organic farming and renewable non-timber resource production, i.e. growing bamboo. Apart from being a professional researcher, project manager and research consultant, Olga loves to support young ambitious people by training them and sharing her wide portfolio of skills with those who had fewer opportunities to pursue meaningful and comprehensive education. These days, she enjoys the company of young and enthusiastic students at the Fish Island Community Centre whom she teaches dancing and English.