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I) Painting for Awakening

          The elegance of World Mega Metropolis and Khmer myth preserved by paintings in Angkor Wat’s side street galleries marked an era of “art for awakening” movement in Cambodia. Paintings is a very popular tourist products, a modern-day export that draws attentions from the tourists across all religions, subsequently providing substantiate income and job creation to Cambodia. These paintings are immensely rich in meanings and the insights to the history in order to reconstructing distinctive identities and citizenships. The paintings comes from the courageous spirits that resides in Khmer Judtakor (Independent painters) and those young amateur talent artists. Their hard work has not yet reached its aim, i.e., to change global perception on Khmer people as savages to peace-makers, but it produces an enormous impact to the poor and victims of war.

          Cambodia’s history has been affected by Khmer Rouge genocide incident last five decades and a series of wars was doubly catastrophic. Creating country’s favorable reputation highly depends on a performance of Khmer people. They may benefit from the economies of reputation, at least the reduction in their cost of establishing themselves in the emerging markets of modern world. To Cambodia people, the reputation is a prerequisite not for competitive advantage but furthering the post-genocide development including education, Buddhist religious heritage, tourism and investment.

          The driving force behind the new movement is sufficiency economy philosophy and a more affordable model of training to hand down knowledge of paintings (Dana) to future generations with a view to building peace. Taking a completely challenge and revolutionary approach, an awakening painting community led the initiative in an attempt to open the historical consciousness for identity reconstruction.

          Khmer painters are not only artists but being tomorrow visionaries, who are making discoveries, and Buddhist practitioners who can inspire the world to learn the profound doctrines of Buddhism about the truth of life and death (Trisikkha). It is of relevance during the transition period to ASEAN integration. The dedication of Khmer painters proves that anyone can make a positive impact or even change the world!

II) A Revival of Memory and History

          Ankor Wat is an architectural wonder renown worldwide as one of seven World Wonders. There are more than 4 million visitors visiting Cambodia annually. The revenue from Angkor Wat’s entrance fee of THB 30 million a day contributes THB 2,000 million a year towards Cambodia economy. It stimulates the growth of service sector including international tourism, air transport, logistics, real estate and construction until Siem Reap received the recognition as one of five World’s Best Cities in 2014.

          The paintings of Ankor Wat declare Khmer’s happiness of being one of the largest empires thousands years ago. The people gradually realize it is the important to define them as “Khmer” which means “Supreme happiness” in the global context. They get their country’s native name (Khmer) from Kusala Dharmma, dharma principle that people follow in an attempt to find the ultimate happiness. “Puttassa Loga Dhammehi Jittang Yussa Na Guppati Asogung Virachung Khemung” means any soul that encounters with life changing (Loka Dharma – Eight worldly conditions such as happiness and suffering) and able to maintain its purity without any defilement (Kilesa) attached will eventually find the ultimate happiness. It is a state of mind of Arahans who has attained nirvana (Nibbana).

          As the historian and broadcaster, the job requires Khmer painters to collect history from the living memory of the Khmer public. Everyone’s personal history is a creatively story. A collection of fragmented pieces of information from folk literature is a time-consuming rather than a complex tasks. Firsthand knowledge greatly help painters deepen their imaginations that can beautify their paintings.

          In Cambodia, religion and art are integral to personal and social identity. Cultural achievement including painting and architecture are mainly related to Buddhist religious. These paintings with the depiction of Angkor Wat, Absara (courtesans of Hindu mythology), humans, animals, communities and Buddhist monks are being used as a medium for the communication of remarkable insights into the glorified Khmer Empire and Cambodian life with a broader global public. A revival of memory and history, simultaneously, helps raise historical consciousness among Khmer people to bring back the memories of Khmer values and morals, establish the connection back to their cultural heritage and reconstruct Cambodians’ identities.

          Both glory and the horrors of genocide and bombardment remain alive in red-black color of its background. The interpretation of wars are hidden in its colors, shading and souls of paintings to bring viewers into the deeper reaches of knowledge related to Trisikkha in attempt to awaking the public. When viewers having a moment of insight, it means Cambodia is reconnected to the world and able to grab an opportunity to enter international tourism markets.

III) Wars and Nostalgia

          Khmer Rouge troops carried out wild and hasty destruction of art and culture. According to the communist ideology, art brings illusory, passing pleasure. It encourages people to be lazy, resisting to change. Detachment to the part became a way to forgetting. Subsequently, artifacts and historical books had been destroyed. Scholars and Buddhist monks were killed in a blaze. “old” habits and practices were eliminated. The great cruelty came from the government slogan that wrote “When one has hit a snake, they must hit hard on its head, not its tail”. Royal arts and artifacts in certain temples that survive today because of native soldiers defending their homeland by sending the false information on the elimination of art and Buddhism to the government. However, nearly 50 years of war, painting is almost extinct.

          The painters have diligently research the customs and rituals of ancient Khmer to revive the spirit of Khmer art. Elders or ordinary people become important sources of oral history. The myth of the Angkor Wat is a great source of pride. The painting of fire worshipping, a form of religious worship of Absara to Indra Lord of the Gods of Heaven dominates the painting of Angkor Wat. This tradition was lost when Buddhism had arrived Khmer.

          While the myth restoring the dignity of the people, it also brings life and spirituality to them. The “art for awakening” movement marked another notable change in Cambodia history. It is for the first time the history is recorded by Cambodian people, rather than outsiders.

IV) The insightful learning from paintings

          Angkor Wat painings feature the way people see a once flourishing and advanced society and civilization. Building Ankor Wat and massive stone smiling faces of the Bayon reveals a technologically complex task as stone carving, transporting, efforts and talents of Khmer people. Cambodians interpret the secret smiles that though sadness or happiness, the Cambodians will smile and stay alive with hope. Though Cambodia is ASEAN’s Least Developed Country, but the Cambodians will never give up to find a recovery from wars. They believe that the sun when once set, will then rise again in the next following day.

          Ankor Wat is a national symbol appeared on Cambodia’s national flag, representing a glorify nation. Ankor Wat is a central image of nationalhood as its civilization lasting for previous thousands years. The influence of Khmer philosophical thinking, language, education and culture had continued to direct the way in which almost half of ASEAN people, in particularly in Thailand, Lao PDR and Myanmar, view the world around them.

          When many new paintings entering into the tourism markets, it marks the victory of light over dark of the current political tension. Painting activities has never been formalized by the government but they began to relax its policies towards arts and crafts business. The foreigners would know the Cambodians has more freedom of expression and human dignity prevails. Most of all, Cambodia is presently a peaceful place; awaiting for welcoming the visitors from all over the world.

          Paintings transmits Buddhist teachings and enlightenment by linking the past to the future of Cambodia. The understanding of causes occurred in the past and the irreversible consequences in the future help people aware of their actions in the present time. This is according to the Four Noble Trust. It includes bodily action (Kaya karmma), verbally action (Vaji karmma), and mind action (Mano karmma).

          Once paintings nourishing global viewers experiences of the elegance of the past over long periods of time, they would have changed their perceptions towards Cambodia. Khmer’s civilization is based on the Kings’ patronage of arts and crafts that drove much innovation in Khmer arts and architecture and interrupted by the consequences of irregulars in last decades that came as a huge shock to the Cambodian public. The incidents just occurred within a short time compared to Khmer civilization era. An impression on paintings will direct the viewers’ attention to Cambodia’s future on how the ancient civilization has shaped the modern society; rather than focusing on genocide and a series of wars. The irregulars will soon become a thing of the past and lose its momentum as the time has passed.

          An explosion of red and black, showing a critical moment of cruelty; red means blood and flesh of the Cambodians during the genocide and wars and black represents ancient munitions. These paintings are made to speak to the viewers that every country witnessed series of war. An occurrence of war found all over the world within the passage of time will be over according to Akaliko principle. Akaliko means dharma can bestow timeless and immediate results here and now. All living beings suffer from suffering (Dukkha) and impermanence; it is universal and pleasure is transient.

          Gathering historical information and raising historical awareness through paintings will inspire people to live their lives according to Dharma and the existence of Dharma (Dharma Thiti) could change the negative images towards Cambodia.

V) Judtakor and the Pleasures of Painting

          Art education has long been a part of Khmer tradition. Presently, a number of classes inside painting shops have transformed the lives of young people both talent and disadvantaged ones. The value of art education puts the country to peace and sustains cultural heritage of Khmer art as well as the craft specialization.

          Cambodia society becomes a literacy society when street education is widespread. In Cambodia, there are a number of young amateur talented painters awaiting for chances of skill training. In the last 5 years, Ankor Wat independent painters support the education and artistic creativity of young amateur talented painters free of charge. Many of them experienced the genocide incident and a series of wars first hand.

The selection the learners based on 2 criteria as follows:

  • The possibility of performing moral duty after the training. Well-trained painters must follow the sufficiency economy principle. Malpractice and a desire for profit caused the tragedy as the previous generations had experienced. They must, therefore, be aware of risks from taking exploitation beyond the normal level of selling price. This commitment help the society reach higher goals, i.e., Khmer art can go global and the country could build the new image as the painting price is very cheap.
  • They must accept the responsibility for reviving a shared Khmer history.

          Sufficiency economy philosophy of “giving for other giving” constitutes the foundation of paintings and contributes to the social and economic development of the country. More importantly, other disadvantaged people can access to the training courses.

          Those amateur painters have to master the basics of painting as early as possible. The learners will be trained to pain the same picture for a year. The success of art training also depend on shifting in learner’s literacy habits. Those have mastered the basics, they succeeded in developing a love of painting and endless efforts to make painting irresistible while many people dropped out. Within a year, they become skillful in drawing different shapes of carp fish, landscape and life-like painting. Abilities to feathering the history of Cambodia requires advanced skills to draw a more complex lines of Apsara and Angkor Wat.

          Carp fish painting help painting trainees improve the quality of line, shading with minutest details of brushstrokes and texture, and overlays of color. The landscape painting has enhanced different set of skills as well as measuring their perseverance, allowing learners to find their art specialties and eventually becoming skillful. Life-like painting is a reflection of a healthy living of Cambodians and resource abundance. The moonlight shining over the hill image reveals the deep feeling of Cambodians as they were aware of deep fears for they were completely isolated from the rest of the world.

          The background of the moon image related to children who were hiding in the forest, awaiting for father to come back home. Many fathers were taken away to the camp for killing. The children has never showed up during the day or in any other places. Until the nighttime, they then come out to find other survivors and make a wish to the moon.

          Carp fish is a sacred animal introduced by Japanese soldiers during the World War II. The soldiers dig up a pond in front of their house to domesticate carp fish. It lifts their spirit to be focus and never giving up. Carp fish symbolizes the success, abundance and promise to the Cambodians because during a reproduction period, carp fish will swim against the current to lay eggs the same place every year.

          Its life struggle reminds people to be patient when encountering any challenge or extreme adversity. The strong intention and endeavor will bring a success to those who never give up. An attempt to revive the country to be a center of healthy civilization, Cambodian people need to stay strong and persevere like crap fish.

VI) Street Education Intelligence

          Being the civilization centre of the world, people inherited a tradition of painting arts and stone crafts skills from their ancestors and pass down the knowledge, skills and personal experiences to the future generations. The provision of skill training earn less income in order to open an access to wider groups.

          An awakening painting community comprises of 20 families; there are female painters only 20 – 30 people while male painters are twice a size. The trainers have to bear higher cost of training including oil color, water color, brushes etc. Part of the revenue from selling is directed to fund the training courses. Profits appear in a different form from the definition understood by modern economy. The continuation of giving (Dana); from giving knowledge and skills to others will sustain knowledge of art and turn people to be a giver of the future. Eventually, the society would gain greater profits from “Giving for other giving”. Secondly,

          Training to develop painting capacity also develop a love of painting. Painting has now entered to the digital economy. Apparently, Cambodian painters is today’s digital entrepreneurs; selling their painting on-line while collecting more information from outsiders.

Kru Boonpeng Case

          Kru Boonpeng is an experienced trainer. Painting at Kru Boonpeng shop earn some profit but he want to promote the reputation of the country. The inner part of his shop is allocated for art training. 60% of income from selling paintings will be given to the painters and the rest of 40% is kept for subsidizing the training. In order to survive, he has to cut down all costs while maintaining the high-quality of paintings. He introduced different cost saving measures including the procurement of “China-made” products instead of imported products from Japan or Thailand to gain from lower prince.

          Kru Boonpeng also uses facebook to introduce souvenir and non-souvenior paintings for export. Facebook becomes an important marketing channels for his paintings to go globalize and supply the provision of information to the customers. When Cambodia opened their country, the demand for painting pictures has increased. In particular, Angkor Wat painting with the size of 40 x 100 cms reached its peak. The price is ranging from 15, 20 and 25 USD. Buying from the painter can get a cheaper prince.

Kru Saran Case

          Kru Saran spend 13 years of skill training, now run training courses only for his wife and relatives. Kru Saran’s monthly selling worth 400 – 500 USD which covers all living costs. Due to informal loan to building a shop in front of Angkor Wat, he has to run another shop in Siem Reap night market from 2 p.m. to midnight time. His saving comes from the right calculation for color usage. Oil color out of the tube can not be kept. An experienced painters pose special skills to save color usage, i.e., half of the oil color tube will be used for 3 paintings, to cut down the costs. The training to the amateur painters is rather important to save the cost. They should be trained to paint various pictures and how to use the black color on background.

          Angkor Wat paintings will be sold at the price of 15 USD; Tonle Saab and rural community will be sold at 12 USD because it does not require time and special skills for detailed drawing. Part of selling come from art dealers who collect orders from the clients and gain from a much cheaper price.

Amateur Talent Painters Case

          Mr. Panya used to be a worker at the garage and a member of gangsters before being a migrant worker in 2006, the 60th Anniversary Celebrations of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s Accession to the Throne. He learned to be patience from Phra Mahachanok book. With love that gradually developed, he could paint the same life-like paintings for 8 months though has not yet fulfilled the requirement to continue into next step.

          Miss Tiwa thought that selling rice could earn a lot of money but selling paintings can unveil many hidden stories and attract the tourists to return to Cambodia for discovering the secret smile of the Bayon. Miss Tiwa aims at one day Cambodia will be a spiritual center of the world.

VII) Future potentials

          Paintings give a boost to Cambodia economy. It had outstanding years during last decade after Cambodia opened the country. Presently, a number of painters is increasing but due to political problems, tourist visitors start to decline. However, the awakening painting community believes that due to painting, Cambodia imagery starts to appear in the press and media. Paintings protect the spiritual boundary of Cambodia that still exists today on the map of the world.


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