How an Artist Needed to be an Entrepreneur in Cambodia

“It has been really starting something from scratch.”

-Lyno Vuth

I met Lyno Vuth in Sapporo, Japan in 2016. He was invited to an event called Art Camp to present his work and I helped with his presentation as an interpreter. He shared how he and his team started an art workshop and artist residency in one of the historical buildings in Cambodia; it was called the White Building which was then gray because of the dirt and aging. The White Building used to be a symbol of modern Cambodia, but it became a low income residence after the Khmer Rouge. Sa Sa Art Project started there, surrounded by communities who have almost no idea what contemporary art is. 

One day, when I was thinking of applying to the Art and Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University, I thought of Lyno, googled his name, and found Sa Sa Art Projects. It had grown into a sort of institution with projects and workshops and young artists. I was blown away by how much Lyno and his team had done. 

Sa Sa Art Project, Public Program, A street -side coffee shop at the White Building was turned into a community theater.  Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2016 © Lyno Vuth

Midori : You started the Sa Sa Art project in the White Building, and then you moved to the current location in 2017, correct? How long have you been working on the Sa Sa art project? 

Lyno: For thirteen years now. The first six years were in the White Building, and then seven years in the current building.

Midori : That’s amazing! At the conference in Sapporo, I remember you mentioning that there was not much contemporary art education available in Cambodia.

Lyno: It was quite limited. For example, there is only one state art university, and the department is fine arts, but they are quite traditional, mainly doing paintings and sculptures. They are not so keen on contemporary and experimental practice.

On the other hand, there is a very big school in the north of Cambodia, Hmong, and in Paramount province. It’s not a state school, it’s a nonprofit school.They have had a long running art program since the nineties. Many students have graduated from there. Their program started out as informal but has evolved to a more structured four year program. And that opens for contemporary practice very much. And other than that maybe not so much, and that’s why Sa Sa is offering to fill this gap of contemporary art education.

Midori: How did you become interested in art?

Lyno: It’s quite a long story, but maybe I can share some key points. I was born in 1982, which is three years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 so Cambodia was going through a transition.

It was still like a civil war and recollection of powers between parties. It was not  until 1991 that the Paris Agreement was made to reconcile and not until 1993 that we had a new constitution of democratic state with multi-party parliament. So in a way, because of that political infrastructure, it didn’t allow contemporary art practices to prosper.

It wasn’t until the late nineties that a new important art space called Radium: Arts and Culture Institute opened. Some other spaces slowly launched among Phnom Penh, including the French Cultural Institute which promotes art exhibitions that brought in French and Cambodian artists.

Midori: I see.

English for Artists class co-taught by Lyno Vuth and Prumsodun Ok for Sa Sa’s Art Project’s Education program.  Phnom Penh in 2021 © Lyno Vuth

Lyno: For me, growing up around that time, I didn’t know much about art. I actually studied information technology, but my interest was quite a lot in the visual aspect. Later I was working in a nonprofit and then I became interested in photography.I would go into galleries by myself. At one point, I found out that one photo gallery offered classes. That space allowed me to meet others in the community and after graduating we tried to stick together.

 That’s the beginning of this project journey, we formed the collective with the idea of wanting to do something to contribute to the landscape of contemporary art and to also allow us to continue to be artists.

When the Reyun came to an end in 2009, it felt urgent to build a Cambodian run space and we wanted it to be independent even though we didn’t quite have the skills to do it yet. 

So , one thing led to another. In my practice, studying photography evolved into curating by necessity…and because within Sa Sa, we had to do sales… so it’s like skills that I had to learn as we go until today. It has been really starting something from scratch.

Midori: I see. That was the moment you became an entrepreneur!

Lyno: I am not sure if entrepreneur is the right term. But long story short, we had opened one small gallery already around 2009.

We tested with that gallery and then we expanded into the idea to be more of a space for  education, experimentation, exchange, and learning. 

Midori: Wow. 

Lyno: Yes.  There was a moment of energy coming together. 

Some of my collective members were from the universities, and they just graduated. So we were eager to continue doing something. Also we had a leader, a former team member who was a self-taught photographer. He had developed his practice, and he helped us to become ambitious and to come together.

Sa Sa Art Project, Education, Performance by Yeng Sovannarith at Contemporary Art Class Graduation Exhibition, Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2020 © Lyno Vuth

Midori: Also during that period, you went to the States to study for your master’s degree.

Lyno: Yes, I studied in the US from 2013 to 2015. It was a turning point in my life, because when we started the Sa Sa Art project, I was still working full time in the nonprofit. So, applying to school in the US was like another part time job for me.

I did not know where the funding for the art in Cambodia was. There is zero funding for contemporary art from the government. So we need to think about getting it from somewhere else. I knew nothing.

Fortunately, we were able to meet good collaborators along the way.. We got a small grant and we did a series of workshops in photography and mixed media with young students from the White Building neighborhood.

Over time, we maximized the potential of the workshops and got to know our neighbors. There was a conversation and presentations at the end and students invited their families and the neighborhood to come and see. People were so excited, so happy and proud. 

I asked them what they wanted to do after, and many of them said they wanted to study more. I was like, “Oh, they want to study more! But what do I have to offer?” Then I realized that this was my calling. That’s something I need to really put my full energy into. I needed to put my full energy into learning and my own growth and development. So I decided to pursue this master’s degree in the USbecause there’s no program like that here in Cambodia. I got scholarships and everything came into place. 

When I came back, I continued to think about the way we teach and being an artist and curating.

Midori: How was your experience being in a school in the United States?

Lyno: Oh, it was so hard. The language and terminology, and the compensation of the academic material… I would read one paragraph and boom! Everyone else in the class had already read and finished the discussion. So it challenged me a lot.

It really pushed me so much. I was like, “Oh my God, can I do this? (I don’t think I can!)” But, you gradually get used to things , and hang on to it… and somehow survive.  It really changed my life. 

It really opened up my perspective in the ways that I look at my home country. I look at what’s happening, what happened before, how can we learn from that, what can we do now, and what I find I really appreciate a lot is to look at those things with a critical lens.

I think that the MFA program helps me regardless because it is a history of mostly European and American art. There are some other classes that involve art from Asia as well, but not a lot. I think it helps me to develop a method and a discipline in my thinking, in my writing and in my attitude towards things regardless of whether it’s art or not.

Midori: We need to update art history with more content from other cultures and countries. 

It’s not easy for people from other countries to study in the United States in English when it’s not their first language, but I assume there must be so many more challenges when you return to Cambodia.. What was the biggest challenge you faced? 

Lyno: I am not sure if it’s a challenge, but at the same time it is an opportunity as well. Thinking about the Sa Sa Art Project, when I came back in 2015, we continued to work at the White Building but also at the same time,we heard from the government that there was possible demolition and eviction.

We wanted to think about what we would do if they all agreed to move. If they did not agree, we would stay with and we would continue to look for alternative solutions. , But they decided to move. 

There was also the conversation of, “are we still relevant?” and “Is our work still relevant outside of the White Building?” And if so, what are our strengths and do we want to continue? So it was a collective discussion and we all agreed that our strength is in education and that it’s something that we could continue to grow. We decided to continue in the new space. It’s grounded in an education program and it has also expanded into exhibition.

Midori: Wow. Amazing. So, is it currently funded by the Cambodian government?

Lyno: No, not at all. We were very fortunate to have an amazing funder fully support us for a period of three years from 2019 to 2022. Those three years allowed us to expand on our ambitions in the program and focus on the impact of our work. We were able toprepare and think through how we can be more sustainable and independent.

Midori: So it was privately funded?

Lyno: Yes, we were privately funded by this Japanese-owned foundation based in New Zealand.

Midori: Wow. I am kind of proud. Haha.

Sa Sa Art Projects, Open Studio by artist-in-residence Anurak Tanyapalit, Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2019 © Lyno Vuth

Lyno: Yes. That’s amazing. It was actually, in fact, after we moved out here, we were also draining our funding and things. So this funding came at a very critical time. So through which we were able to continue to survive, and at the same time to have this time not thinking much about making money for now, but thinking about making money for the future. 

Midori: Right. So now are you guys able to sustain yourself?

Lyno: Agh….almost! Haha…not quite yet! We are reaching a point where we feel okay for one year and a bit difficult for one year.

From the year of 2020, we started this fundraising option. It’s quite amazing. Because after all these years, as you could see from 2010 to the networks that we have built connections with artists in residency program, with partners, with friends in Cambodia, in Southeast Asia, and far beyond that we came into a point where we were able to to ask artists to contribute an artwork to us for our auction.

And 50% go back to artists, 50% goes to Sa Sa Art Project. We started in 2022 and it went very successfully amidst the COVID crisis. Yes. And it was quite, quite interesting because we were learning along the way and because of the COVID. Right. So everything was quite new, a new system upgraded to be online through this new platform, new technology developed online, including online bidding and options.

Midori: I see that now! I hear you say challenging could be a possibility.

Sa Sa Art Projects team during Fundraising Auction in 2020. Lyno is the second from the right. 

Lyno: We knew that there’s some resources available. If you’re talking about art buyers or collectors, there are very few locally who are doing it. So we know that we cannot rely only on the local art collectors. So we need to reach out to the regional art collectors.

An online platform is the bridge. At that time we were still acting, but it is also very important to have the local presence to engage with the audience here so that they understand a bigger picture about the art scenes in Cambodia. For 2020’s auction, we had about 80 plus artworks. We’ve actually got between 80 and 90 artworks as well for 2022.

It includes young artists who graduate from art class to more senior and established artists from Cambodia and to kind of like a range of diverse artists from South East Asia, largely. So in a way, we call it the auction exhibition.

Midori: So a physical exhibition while having an online presence, it’s like a hybrid.

Lyno: Yes. We know that it is important to engage with the existing audience here in Cambodia to have that presence. And so they can see the highlights of Cambodian contemporary art and artists from the region. Also a sense of solidarity, while at the same time having an online presence for the regional art collectors that we reach out through all our networks, possible networks.

Midori: That sounds great. Wonderful! 

So you had 80 to 90 pieces of artworks. Did you sell all of them or how did it go? 

Lyno: No, we did not sell all of them. with 20, 21 days. I think we sold only about 10%, 25% of the artworks. But with strategic high value in combination of established artworks for the original act and low value adverts for the local and affordable for the local collectors, 

Midori: Wow. You guys funded more than $40,000.

Lyno: Yes, that is the one from 2020. That’s quite remarkable and we are very thankful. For example, like the funder that used to support us for three years continues to support us through auctions. 

Midori: Wow. Nice. Congratulations!

Sa Sa Art Projects raised $41,280 through an auction exhibition in 2020.

Midori: This is my last question for you today. How would you encourage children who are interested in pursuing art? What would you say? 

Lyno: That is a hard one. Haha…

Whenever I teach, at least in my class, I want  to know where you are from. To know who were in the way cultivated before you. Learn from strategy. And have a question for yourselves. Learning from the past, achievement, and innovation. What can we learn from? Learn from those and take action for now and future. For yourself, for your community, for your context. 

Lyno Vuth (he/him) is an artist, curator, and educator interested in space, cultural history, and knowledge production. Alongside his individual artistic practice, he is a member of Stiev Selapak collective which founded and co-runs Sa Sa Art Projects, a long-term initiative committed to the development of contemporary visual arts landscape in Cambodia. His works have been presented in Cambodian and international venues including at major exhibitions and festivals such as the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Biennale of Sydney, Singapore International Festival of Arts, and Gwangju Biennale. He holds a Master of Art History from the State University of New York, Binghamton, New York, a Fullbright Fellowship(2013-15), and a Master of International Development from RMIT University, Melbourne, supported by the Australian Endeavour Award (2008-2009).

Sa Sa Art Projects

Midori Yamanaka (she/her) is a social practice artist, educator, and single mother. Midori was born and raised in Japan, but is currently living and working in Portland, Oregon. Her practice explores ways to harness creativity based on common values in diverse societies and their respective cultures. She has been working on many international projects as a creative and cultural hub, including Virtual Playdate (2022), World Friendship Online (2020), Asia Winter Game in Sapporo (2017), Esin Creative Workshop in Sapporo (2015), and many others. In 2023, she launched a global mind creative coaching program for Japanese women. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design from Art Center College of Design, and currently is studying and practicing Art and Social Practice at Portland State University.

The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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