By Ben Valentine
(1,600 words, 10 minute read)
Meta Moeng was the first person I met from Cambodia’s arts scene. This was in 2014, and I was eager to learn more about the country’s arts ecology. She was then the community projects manager at SA SA BASSAC (SSB) arts gallery in Phnom Penh, and I was there to see Vandy Rattana’s Monologue exhibition. Moeng simply offered me a brochure and welcomed questions before leaving me to enjoy the show. However, before I prepared to leave the gallery, she returned to give me an arts map of Phnom Penh, and struck up a conversation about what I wanted to see during my stay, all the other art shows in town, and the country’s art history. Moeng spoke as passionately about SSB as she did the whole scene, and I left struck by her generosity and deep commitment to the community. As always, introductions matter.
After nearly three years at SSB, Moeng left the gallery at the beginning of 2016, and has since become a multi-hyphenate in the arts. While many external curators might meet Moeng through her position of studio manager for Sopheap Pich, a successful Cambodian artist known for his rattan sculptures, this is but one aspect of Moeng’s many roles in the arts.
Continuing in her spirit of connectivity, Moeng is also the founder and director of Contemporary Art Space Tours, offering customizable tours of the local arts community. While visiting curators and international arts enthusiasts are her target market, Moeng is most passionate about organising tours for locals unfamiliar with their art scene. Moeng’s most recent tour led students from the International School of Phnom Penh around local art spaces previously unknown to even them.
While cross-pollination throughout the arts is Moeng’s mission, her focus is on Cambodian youth. In 2016, Moeng became the creative producer for Creative Generation with Java Arts. With Moeng, Creative Generation works to partner with young Cambodian artists and designers to develop their work for exhibition in Toul Kork neighborhood. Often, these exhibitions are their first opportunities to show their work to a wider audience, a very important step in any early career.
Creating space for a new generation of artists
Moeng’s biggest move came early last year, when she founded her own independent space, Kon Len Khnhom. Through residency programmes, an informal co-working space, and various events like workshops and lectures, Kon Lenh Khnhom has quickly become a hub for creative activity in Phnom Penh. Kon Len Khnhom is a traditional Khmer house, built on stilts to stay above the rainy season floods, with a newer, cemented ground-level building where most of the activities take place.
Moeng established Kon Len Khnom because she wanted to rent a space to do her own work, but was also keenly aware of how difficult space is to find and afford for many artists and creatives in Cambodia. She sought to expand on the mission of Creative Generation by providing free space to work, experiment, and connect, especially for young creatives (such as artists, filmmakers, architects, designers, culture bloggers, etc.). In a city where most families live in multi-generational apartments that are becoming increasingly expensive, having the space and freedom to create, especially as a young emerging artist, is vital.
Kon Len Khnhom, or “កន្លែងខ្ញុំ” in Khmer, translates to “my place”, embedding Moeng’s ethos into the very vernacular used to discuss the platform. Moeng delights in hearing young artists inviting their friends to not her place, but their own. She constantly encourages those involved to adopt a more active sense of ownership.
“This is your place,” Moeng is often overheard saying.
Visiting artists and researchers given the keys to Kon Len Khnhom may find a large group of college students covering the tables and floor with architectural models, video editing equipment, drawings, and more. Kon Len Khnhom sometimes feels like a library where everyone is immersed in their own work, and one must be quiet and respectful. At other times, it feels like a college lounge, where there are vivid conversations and debates covering a wide range of topics.
While most visitors come for the public talks and workshops, the most compelling aspect of Kon Len Khnhom are the seven- to eight-month-long residency programmes for Cambodians. Divided into three segments – Student, Creative, and Researcher-in-Residence – Kon Len Khnhom nourishes a wide array of work, in hopes of spurring interdisciplinary dialogue and sparking unexpected connections.
One example from the first round of residents is the Roung Kon Project, which consists of a group of young architects researching, documenting, and promoting the iconic cinemas made shortly after Cambodia’s independence from France. The work is equal parts cultural conservation, research, art project, and architectural design.
“By giving us lots of opportunities to meet and share our work with other people, such as architects, artists, designers, and curators, the residency was really helpful to our project,” architect and member of the Roung Kon Project, Tum Yuryphal told me. “Now we feel as though the space is our space too.”
The next station of growth
Seeing how successful Kon Len Khnhom had become within a single year, Moeng was keen to expand. While Kon Len Khnhom is about nourishing community, Moeng understands that, aside from the space and connections she provides, what people often need to transform a creative idea into a success is market interest. In order to pursue their passions in the long term, this young and creative generation needed money. So when a residential building next door to Kon Len Khnhom became available for rent, she jumped at the opportunity to develop an mutually supporting project to help emerging artists break into the market.
Thus came Sthani.Station, the newest addition to Moeng’s growing number of projects that opened late last year. While still incipient, Sthani.Station seeks to become a sort of cooperative marketplace for the community growing around Kon Len Khnhom. Currently open only on weekends, Sthani.Station is slowly increasing its collection of curated products, including contemporary Khmer literature, t-shirts designed by local creatives, hand-printed bags, and more.
Sthani.Station is most active during the large Tang Tok monthly sales featuring the new wave of contemporary Khmer goods. The weekend event has a warm, yardsale-cum-festival atmosphere and draws a significant crowd. While Tang Tok’s exact history is unclear, the name Tang Tok (តាំងតុ) is derived from a form of exhibition from the region where products such as crafts and goods from around the country were displayed together on tables in the royal palace. Accordingly, as with the Khmer-first naming of Moeng’s spaces, it is clear that she seeks to draw from a rich cultural lineage, even while turning to the youngest and most contemporary members who are breaking free of the constraints of the past, where traditional design elements such as Kbach (ក្បាច់) follow rigid, mathematically articulated dimensions.
Breaking curatorial conventions
Moeng’s work is refreshing because of how egalitarian and accessible it is. Tang Tok charges a low flat rate per table, depending on size, while Sthani.Station charges 1,000 riel (0.25 USD) per item, which is deposited in a large piggy bank relying on an honour system. There is a deep sense of mutual trust and support across the two spaces. Moeng understands the many barriers Cambodian artists must surmount for their ideas to take off, and wants to provide them with as many entryways into the vanguard of contemporary Cambodian culture as possible.
The art world is tough, which is especially true in Cambodia, where there is nearly zero government funding and the art market is minute, and largely centred around tourists crafts and classical forms. With the contemporary arts scene so small here, cross-pollination and mutual support is necessary for growth. So far, this approach hasn’t been common, as people and projects are forced to compete for what little funding is available via non-profit organisations. Apart from Moeng, there are very few Cambodian arts professionals or art spaces founded and run by Cambodians, and even fewer women involved. The challenges are further compounded for Cambodian women, who are more restricted by conservative gender conventions. Moeng believes this must change, and she has expressed great hope for the more educated, connected, and globally-minded younger generation, who are eager to express themselves in experimental ways.
As more young professionals seek out the support of Moeng and her spaces for assistance and guidance, their success will ultimately hinge on the quality of long-term, engaged mentorship and the connections provided there, beyond the regular slate of visiting lecturers and workshops.
With a background in business management, Moeng does not have a formal education in art history and critical theory. However, she is deeply knowledgeable and connected in Cambodia’s creative scene, with instincts sharpened from years of experience in working with local artists and a deep understanding of their trajectories. Erin Gleeson, founder and artistic director of SSB, told me that Moeng’s “experiences over the years in various capacities with different art spaces and artists has attuned her to local needs.” This is something few foreign curators parachuting into Phnom Penh can claim.
While Moeng shies away from being called a curator, that is changing. In 2015, Moeng was part of the first group of fellows who participated in the prestigious year-long Cambodian Living Arts Fellowship, which takes arts professionals around Cambodia and abroad to learn best practices and theories for supporting art and culture. Earlier this year, she was also awarded admission into the Curators Academy in Singapore. Both these programmes have propelled her further forward as a local and regional bridge-builder in the arts.
“I like to challenge myself.” Moeng told me when talking about the Curators Academy. “If I have a chance to learn and develop, I will surely take it. Learning never ends.”
This is the first instalment of a series on contemporary arts spaces in Southeast Asia and their founders.
Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia, where he is currently writing his first book. Ben covers contemporary art and culture for magazines and websites around the world, and has written or spoken for Hyperallergic, SFAQ, Rhizome, Arts Asia Pacific, de Young Museum, and the Museum of the Moving Image, to name a few. Follow Ben on Twitter @bennnyv.