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Capturing rapidly changing landscapes en plein air

Art teacher Fernando Aceves Humana specialises in lithography.
Art teacher Fernando Aceves Humana specialises in lithography. Scott Rotzoll

Capturing rapidly changing landscapes en plein air

At first glance, a few of the small paintings in the week-long exhibition Chroy Changvar – A Disappearing Context might look like a quick take on a river scene by Monet.

Boats bob above thick dabbles of paint, and bits of gold fill the canvases with ambient light. But the river is the Tonle Sap, and its shadowy backdrop the Royal Palace and the Vattanac Capital Tower.

Each Friday evening for the past year, a group of arts students have made the trip across the Japanese Bridge to paint en plein air like the 19th century masters.

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The groups are led by Chan Vitharin and Fernando Aceves Humana, who run the Royal University of Fine Arts’ Char studio.

In the airy studio this week, surrounded by the students’ paintings, Fernando, a cheery Mexican lithographer, said the en plein air class was the easiest to teach, if only because of the few materials and limited time frame – just three hours, usually.

“In Chroy Changvar, the studio is a backpack,” he laughed.

The peninsula was an appropriate place to record changes in light, weather and physical space, he explained. Rapid construction and dredging has greatly reshaped the land, as well as its local Cham community. Fernando described it as a scene for a “silent drama” between nature, tradition and development.

Chroy Changvar has rapidly developed from a sleepy peninsula into a bustling suburb of Phnom Penh.
Chroy Changvar has rapidly developed from a sleepy peninsula into a bustling suburb of Phnom Penh. Scott Rotzoll

To illustrate this point, Vitharin presented one of his own paintings of Chroy Changvar – from two decades ago. In it, the peninsula’s land is all tall grass and palm trees. Now, he explained, the scene is filled with concrete and a few new high-rises.

The pop-up exhibition – currently displayed on the rooftop of one of these new developments – was organised by Ludgera Klemp, head of cooperation at the German embassy and an environmentalist. Klemp hopes to soon bring the artists and their works to a larger venue.

Because of its extracurricular nature, RUFA’s Char studio draws students from many of the faculties, and not all are aspiring impressionists.

One of the paintings by Lim Bunhak, a fifth-year architecture student from Siem Reap, had Phnom Penh’s skyline drawn in neat black ink. “I remember when I was first in Phnom Penh, the line of the buildings was like this,” he said, holding his arm out flat.

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Founded by Mexican artist Francisco Castro in 2011, the Char studio is intended to introduce new and different techniques to these students. Its primary focus is lithography.

Castro’s arts collective brought the first etching press to Cambodia since one that disappeared from the National Bank under the Khmer Rouge.

For a short time, artist and S-21 survivor Vann Nath worked in the studio, and it has produced its own young master, Kong Vollak, who has participated in a residency in Mexico and exhibited his print-making abroad.

Since 2014, students in-studio have worked with another lost art: fresco. Foreign artists brought 350 kilograms of wet lime to Phnom Penh in order to teach students the technique, which could be crucial for future restoration.

Artist Chan Vitharin painted Phnom Penh's skyline as seen from Chroy Changvar.
Artist Chan Vitharin painted Phnom Penh's skyline as seen from Chroy Changvar. Scott Rotzoll

More than 50,000 buildings in the city from the French period feature lime, not concrete, Fernando said. The lessons appeal to architecture students in particular.

As the Char studio enters its fifth year, it has granted professional print-making certificates to more than 70 students, but it still operates outside the university’s official curriculum, and RUFA provides just a small annual sum for its materials. To become a part of it – and to receive a guarantee of continuity – requires approval from the Ministry of Culture.

The studio, like its subjects, seems to be at a point of change. “We are in a very delicate moment,” Fernando said with a characteristic grin.

The student exhibition Chroy Changvar – A Disappearing Context is on at the Bellevue Serviced Apartments, #68-69 Tonle Sap Street on the Chroy Changvar peninsula until Friday.

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