After the sun-baked Siem Reap street, with its dust, drink
stands and buzzing mopeds, walking into Theam’s Gallery is like
stepping into a willow-pattern plate. Lim Muy Theam has created a
wonderland of interlocking courtyards, tiled-roof pagodas, a
bridge, model traditional houses and antiques. Bougainvillea
cascades; there are knotty banyan trees and orange-and-purple birds
of paradise. A mynah bird bleats “hello”. Maddy Lim, the artist’s
sister, shows me around. She’s French-accented, erudite, and as
elegant as a designer’s sketch.
Theam’s paintings explore his country’s history, with poppy-red
lacquer set against black and white, portraits and crowd scenes
against Cambodian backdrops. He looks out from one, with the
saddest eyes you’ve ever seen.
Before the pandemic, Theam had 40 artisans working alongside him
here, but now, just a couple. Siem Reap’s economy, reliant almost
entirely on tourism, has been hit hard by Covid. Dubliner Robina
Hanley, long-term resident and my art tour guide, tells me that
during lockdowns, local government took the opportunity to fix all
of Siem Reap’s roads. “The place was ripped apart while we were
broken inside,” she says.
Now the roads are all good, and the tourists are slowly
returning. When the first Singapore Airlines flights returned, many
people went to celebrate and welcome the plane at the airport.
Maddy Lim pauses in front of a black-and-white family
photograph. She was eight years old when it was taken, at a refugee
camp as they fled from the Khmer Rouge. Her brother is a couple of
years older, a far-off expression in his eyes.
“My brother was in a working camp,” she says. “Escaping to
France he had a new life, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts,
before returning over 25 years ago. He has been working ever since
to revive local crafts decimated during the regime.
Most tourists are here to visit Angkor Wat, the extraordinary
temple complex enfolded in the jungle, but Siem Reap is becoming
increasingly renowned for its contemporary art. Hanley takes me to
meet Nou Sary, who paints impressionistic canvases recalling his
early life. He worked in the rice paddies until he was 12 years
old, then walked to Phnom Penh in search of an education.
A security guard during the day, Sary enrolled in night classes
at the University of Fine Arts and, together with other students
without lodgings, slept in the classrooms. He drew postcards and
sold them to tourists for £1 so that he could afford to eat.
“Art is a tool that can change a person and can bring you very
far. It’s a freedom,” says Svay Sareth, as he and Yim Maline, his
wife, both artists, show me around their extraordinary studio and
workshop-filled house, which they’re turning into an art school.
Sareth, whose works can be seen in museums from New York to
Singapore, discovered art as an escape, aged 7, at Site Two refugee
camp. In one of his most renowned works, Mon Boulet, he pulled an
80kg, 2m-wide metal ball 250km from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh. To him
it signified Cambodian history, “like a ball and chain”.