Arts & Culture

Khvay Samnang Tackles Environmental Issues Through Art and Humour

Working with the space and communities involved

Words by
b-side staff

Born in a country where communities are built in close proximity to nature, Cambodian artist Khvay Samnang‘s work has a strong focus on the humanitarian and ecological impact of colonialism and globalisation. His multidisciplinary practice also offers new views on the impact of historical and current events. By using humour and involving the local communities of wherever his work takes place, Samnang allows the work to speak for itself. And for the audience to question their own biases, assumptions and perspectives.

What was the inspiration behind Untitled and Enjoy My Sand?

Untitled was inspired by a development project in a big lake that affected 4,000 families. People were evicted and received a small compensation. I got the inspiration for Enjoy My Sand when I read the news about Cambodia selling sand to Singapore. To expand geographically, Singapore buys a lot of sand from different countries. Two Cambodian activists were jailed after they protested against such sales because of their adverse impact on the local community and people.

What role does humour play in your art practice?

Before I do the art, I always spend a lot of time researching and collecting information by going to the development area to learn and to “feel” it. During my research on development areas, especially in Boeung Kok Lake, I saw people moving their houses, while the company was extracting sand from the lake. The people needed to escape from the flooding. It looked like they were killing people by sand. So I used sand as a symbol.  

Share with us more on why you focus on the humanitarian and ecological impact of colonialism and globalisation in your art.

I am interested in environmental issues and the impact they have on small or big communities; they also affect me and the world.

Because a developing country has to deal with the great impact of environmental issues, I question what the development is for — for what and for whom?

Because we live in the same environment, other places would also have to deal with the effects.

Why do you think it is important to engage with the local communities for your work?

It is important for me to engage with the local community in Cambodia. I need to be there to learn and research more about what happens in the local community. I am not only watching or listening to the news, especially when there is a stage to work on. The stage is where the incident happened or is happening, and then it also involves the people, environment and surrounding atmosphere.

Are there any observations on how countries like Singapore, Cambodia and Japan react to your work?

Though my work is rather abstract, the Cambodian community understands that I use symbols to tell stories about development. The people in Singapore are interested in my work and it reminds them of Singapore’s past. In Japan, they react to my work about development issues and it reminds them about climate change or an environmental issue that they’ve had in their own country.

In your opinion, will art always be relevant?

Yes, of course. Art is always relevant. I always learn from a place or an area where I research, and something will happen to me while I am there. I never plan what I should do.

As I mentioned before, I need to be in the place to feel it, to talk to people, to live there or to learn what affects the community, with my own eyes.

I reflect on what I’ve seen and the information I’ve collected, before deciding to use some materials or spaces around me in my art. For example, when I visited the beach in Singapore, I saw that there were different kinds of sand: some from rivers and some from seas. When I researched about it, I found out that Singapore buys a lot of sand from Cambodia, affecting the Koh Sralov community in Koh Kong province, where there are mangrove forests and where people fish for a livelihood. I saw that the people in Singapore like going to the beach, where they can play with sand and have other fun activities. Though I joined them, I felt something heavy on my back. Where does the sand come from? People in Singapore love sand, but how about the people in Cambodia? They also love sand and it is important to their livelihood and life.

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