An upstairs classroom at the Small Art School with teachers Sokpheak Doung, her sister Sophea Doung, and Hay Chhoem. All photographs taken by the author.

An upstairs classroom at the Small Art School, with teachers Sokpheak Doung, Sophea Doung (the two are sisters), and Hay Chhoem (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

SIEM REAP, Cambodia — Over four million people visited Cambodia in 2014, many of whom came to see Angkor Wat, the country’s most popular tourist destination. That’s more than a quarter of the entire population of Cambodia. This staggering number of tourists has created an economy that thrives on the sale of knickknacks and trips around the “Kingdom of Wonder.” The streets of downtown Siem Reap, the city closest to Angkor Wat, are lined with thousands of paintings. Most of them show the temple complex and Buddhas, and they look nearly identical.

Tucked away from the tourist traps and the same old stories that are endlessly reproduced about Cambodia, an art school has been cultivating new forms of creativity since 2008. Offering free art classes to roughly 400 kids a month in and around Siem Reap, Small Art School is a breath of fresh air. Paintings by the young students cover the walls, until they overflow and are carefully stacked in corners. The upstairs classroom is filled with supplies foreign to most schools in Cambodia. It may look like a standard US art center, but in a country with an abysmal education system, where most public funds go into the pockets of officials rather than to institutions, the Small Art School is a rarity.

The Small Art School's main entrance and gift shop.

The Small Art School’s main entrance and gift shop

It was founded by Tomoko Kasahara, a Japanese arts teacher from Tokyo. With a MA in art from Tokyo Educational University, Kasahara taught the subject in prestigious high schools in Tokyo for over 30 years. But she became disillusioned with the Japanese education system, which she felt didn’t emphasize or encourage the kind of freedom needed for kids to flourish.

“Children live happily when they can find their own life,” she explained recently at the Small Art School. Instead, her Japanese students focused only on exams for acceptance into top-notch universities. She could see their personal creativity losing out to this myopic vision of success.

Kasahara saved as much money as she could for 20 years to build her own school. She started out scouting for sites in Nepal and India, but decided against those countries due to tumultuous political situations and unjust caste systems. Finally she met a Cambodian who led her to Siem Reap. After visiting in 2003, she moved to the country in 2007 and began construction on the school, which was completely self-funded. Together with her interpreter and co-teacher Hea Chheav, she opened the place in late 2008. Since then, the operation has grown to include Yuko Sakata, the school’s coordinator, and five Khmer art students who have graduated to positions as assistant teachers.

Painter and teacher, Hay Chhoem, stands with a few of his paintings on the left.

Painter and teacher Hay Chhoem stands with a few of his paintings, at left.

The teachers all heard about the school through word of mouth. “I had a dream to study art, but I couldn’t afford to go,” said Hay Chhoem, a painter and teacher. This passion and lack of support were echoed by all of his young colleagues. The two most established and widely known institutions for studying art in Cambodia are the Royal University of Fine Art, in Phnom Penh, and Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), in Battambang. Even though PPS offers free tuition, the act of moving to a new city and paying rent there is prohibitively expensive for most Cambodians. Because of both cultural norms and financial needs, Cambodians typically live with their families until they marry, if not after, bearing food, rent, and household costs between several generations. 

Cambodian schools generally teach a type of rote learning that can be painful to watch. Students are made to copy and repeat aloud what the teacher does for entire lessons. You either repeat a sentence exactly as the teacher said it, or you’re wrong. This is not the modus operandi at the Small Art School. Kasahara’s goal is to give students the freedom to express themselves — a goal emphatically echoed by her five teachers.

Sokpheak Doung, an artist and teacher who first came to study at the Small Art School in 2011, said that in Cambodian schools, students aren’t trusted to learn by themselves. “We’re supposed to just copy. I love our teacher for providing us freedom here.” At the Small Art School, students are given personalized lessons and individual attention. They’re encouraged to be expressive, find their own voices, and experiment.

Lim Kunthea, another artist and teacher, emphasized that “if Tomoko hadn’t come, none of us would have become artists.” Her support, in turn, has encouraged members of the school to think even bigger. “Foreigners recognize the skill of Angkor, but not the art we have today,” Hay said. “It’s my dream that the world recognizes that Cambodia has great artists.”

Sometimes it’s hard to justify supporting creativity and art in a place so poor, a country ranked the most corrupt in Southeast Asia. Yet these artists and teachers offer a great opportunity to move beyond the same three stories told about Cambodia and sold everywhere in Siem Reap: Angkor Wat, the Khmer Rouge, and devastating poverty. This school, like other community art spaces in the country such as Sa Sa Art Projects in Phnom Penh, Epic Arts in Kampot, and Let Us Create in Sihanoukville, offers Cambodians a chance to make new media about themselves — media that’s more complex, more honest, and ultimately more interesting than what’s available at the tourist booths downtown. Rather than interchangeable paintings of Angkor Wat, Buddhas, and Apsaras, at the Small Art School you can find the everyday stories of farmers, vibrantly colored flying elephants, modernist abstractions, and more.

Artists and teachers Em Bandeth at front, and Lim Kunthea in the back, show me around the school.

Artists and teachers Em Bandeth (in front) and Lim Kunthea (in back) giving a tour of the school

Recently, the school has been expanding. In addition to the possibility of adding an additional space, the small institution has simply grown beyond its walls, with weekly and monthly visits to other schools and community centers throughout Cambodia. Several of the teachers, including Em Bandeth, are already working or volunteering part time as art teachers outside of the school. His dream is to take what he has learned here and share it with as many kids as he can.

Ben Valentine is an independent writer living in Cambodia. Ben has written and spoken on art and culture for SXSW, Salon, SFAQ, the Los Angeles Review of Books, YBCA, ACLU, de Young Museum, and the Museum...

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