Conditions for Performance in Cambodia: Interview with Bo Rithy


Born 1989, in Kampuchea Krom, South Vietnam. Bo Rithy was a student at Phare Ponleu Selpak for ten years before graduating from the Visual Arts department in 2010, and is currently undertaking a law degree at the University of Battambang. He has shown in group exhibitions in Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore (where he was selected for the Spot Art Festival), and has had solo exhibitions in Battambang and Phnom Penh.

Annie: Where did you do training as an artist, and what kind of training did you do?

Rithy: I went to Phare Ponleu Selpak when I was 13, in 2001. I studied general education, and I had been training for ten years in painting or drawing, there was no sculpture or anything. Watercolour, oils, and Chinese ink. In 2009, my tutor and artist, Srey Bandaul, introduced me to contemporary art by doing a project called Sarong and Kroma at the Institute Francais in Phnom Penh, and since then on I began to develop an understanding of contemporary art.

In the project, Bandaul introduced the idea of using the ‘kroma’ and ‘sarong’ and this was an experimental project that led me to fall in love with contemporary art. It was different from previous practices, which were just traditional, flat drawings, flat on canvas, but with sarong and kroma, there was the possibility of doing collage and also sewing. It’s a new medium. Also the previous practice was just drawing, no concept in it, but with the project of sarong and kroma, they can conceptualise with them to give meaning to what the sarong could be, especially with these two materials being part of Khmer culture. Also the important thing of the sarong and kroma project is that it offers new ways of looking at the painting, where previously you can only look at the visual with eyes and you can see whether it’s enough in terms of symmetry or harmony, but when you’re working in the kroma /sarong project, you need to use your brain and imagination to see what it is.

In 2010, when I graduated, I did a graduation project using hard wood to produce a painting titled “Marriage”, and it won first prize in school. It was a big encouragement for me to continue working on the project, and since graduation, I continued to explore as an artist, as I needed to find my own style but at the same time find the technique that would fit my desires.

Annie: After graduating in 2010, you went to law school, how did this impact your work?

Rithy: The learning at art school was more universal, it’s broader, and with law school, it is a small part and specific. I don’t bring the two together, but these days, I have been making artwork that speak about the current social and political issues of Cambodia. These political and social issues/topics come from and inspire my current work.

When I was in the school, and after graduation, when I was in law school, I was working as a type of driver or other jobs. These kinds of jobs and careers helped me to explore and experience different kinds of lifestyles, but at the same time to learn what is happening around me

Every morning when I get up, the surrounding environment is all about social issues. I can’t speak up because it’s not safe. I can’t speak verbally, but I can use the art form to express the feeling, to express my opinion to help reach a larger audience, be it International or Cambodian. At the same time, that artwork would continue to exist for a longer period, for the next generation, to be the narrative for what is Cambodia today and instigate public debate.

Bo Rithy performing live painting. Courtesy of Choco L’Art Cafe and Ke Prak.

Annie: When did you did make your first performance and what are the circumstances that led up to that?

Rithy: My first performance wasn’t very professional, it was more of an experiment. As an artist, I would like to see how the other form would work or not? I wanted to try with my friend to experiment, to get a sense of how the performance would be.

There were many performances but I can no longer remember so clearly. There was one in 2012, where I joined a circus team. When I was invited, I had no idea of what I would do at first, as I needed to inspect the space and get a sense of the environment. Once I saw the space, I came up with an idea of what to do, and I did the live painting solo, while a circus performance did contortions as I painted.

With other projects, we devised the work through discussions. For example, if the aim is that everybody has to show their own style, their own technique, then you don’t have to discuss further, everybody just come and do what they think is best for them. But if the discussion says that everybody has to respond to a specific theme, then they have to find a way to collaborate and join together.

I would like to develop this work further. I would like to work collaboratively with my brother who is a circus performer. I do a lot of research by looking at famous artists doing live painting on the internet to get inspiration.

Annie: How is the audience important to live painting? And what do you want them to get out of the live painting experience? And so, is the choice space then important? 

Rithy: There’s always a story to be told. Live painting is about telling a story, so we want people to see it so that the story can be told. But if there’s no audience, how would you tell a story? I am more interested in the public space, but the public space where the audience never gets access to art. I want to try to engage a community that may not have access to contemporary art, so that they can understand it, they can look at it and enjoy, but at the same time, it’s about narrating the message.

Back then Khoun Ali* was using his hair to do the painting, and Sin Rithy* was painting a bird on a tree. I installed a canvas onto my tuk-tuk, and painted a body as a tree, with a human head, and cut the human head. The public was angry at me because I drove his tuk-tuk across and into the public when the performance was happening and everyone was like, what the hell are you doing this is a public performance space, why are you coming in? And then after I began my performance with my tuk-tuk, then everyone was like, ah, it’s part of the show.

I am now also thinking about doing live performance on broadcast with other collaborators to widen the audience for the message.

Bo Rithy, Longvaek’s Bamboo at Romeet Gallery. Image by Annie Jael Kwan

Annie: Would the project be then political? Because you’re going on TV. Your work has been quite political, so would you be nervous of censorship, or this political regime?

Rithy: Nobody really cares, also partly because no one really understands it at the moment. So it’s fine. In my work, I achieved my mission to focus only on political aspect or message, but it depends on the circumstances, it depends on the political situation, but at the same time depends on what I want to express. Sometimes expressing it verbally will violate other people, and it will be a harmful situation, it will be jeopardised. But as an artist, I think why not to use my art to express what I wants, through the painting, through the performance. I am not a reporter. I am an artist, so I use that means to express.

Annie: What do you think of the art scene in Battambang, and what to you is needed to continue to help it to grow?

Rithy: It seems quite restrained, the art scene in Cambodia, because of the closing of several galleries, but for me personally, I think there is a lack in Battambang of a museum of contemporary art, and actual galleries of contemporary art. This space needs to happen in Battambang to boost the arts scene.

I noticed that the Cambodian communities are not very happy. They are so much focused on the work, their life is so burdened. I want to bring art as an enjoyment to the public, so that they can enjoy their life, but at the same time, I want to direct their attention to focus on what is happening in Cambodia. Also to see that there are new styles, new art forms happening in Cambodia. Usually at openings, the communities are invited to attend the gallery, but only a select few, those who are already involved in art, come for the opening. Hence I want to bring art to the public so that they have access to the art, and get them into the contemporary art culture. I’m also very interested in abstract art and other modern and contemporary art, but these are too modern and too speedy for the communities to understand, so there is a need to find a key way to balance between the two.

Annie: You sound quite interested in art education for the wider public, as you’re thinking about how Cambodian artists are used to realism, but you’re trying to get them to be more familiar with these more experimental forms. You seem to want them to have access to these works, including your artwork. What do you think your role is in the future art scene of Battambang?

Rithy: I hope to establish a museum of contemporary art here in Battambang, so that we can house the artwork in the museum, but at the same time to promote the work in Battambang so people can access them. I think that’s important, and that’s reason why these days I’ve been working very hard so that I can become recognised, and at the same time hopefully raise my status. This would allow me the opportunity to meet the right people who are powerful or rich enough to help create the museum.

The idea of creating the museum was born out of a recent trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand. I saw that in Chiang Mai there was a huge museum that was establishing a programme that invited artists to compete. Those who won the competition would be allowed to exhibit in the museum. This way it was an incentive for students to be more creative, to develop their skills more to go into the museum. And also to be more ambitious. I hope to continue to practice the contemporary medium, but at the same time when creating this museum, to earn income by selling the tickets, generating the events, and this income helps to support the artists. I’ve been discussing this with a few people already in the government, but nobody has been interested.

*fellow students at Phare Ponleu Selpak and collaborators of the live painting scene in Battambang

With thanks to Yean Reaksmey, translator and research assistant. This interview is part of a series that began with my curatorial research residency in Cambodia in 2016, which was kindly supported by Java Arts, the Artists International Development Fund and National Arts Council Singapore. The interviews and materials will be accessible at the Live Art Development Agency as part of the Southeast Asia Performance Collection launched by Something Human in November 2017.



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