By: Arthur Nguyen dao
It all started with 9 kids coming back to Cambodia after a childhood in a refugee camp. Meet Tor Vutha, one of the founders of Phare Ponleu Selpak.
“Site 2 camp [largest refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border] closed in 1993 and everyone had to go back to Cambodia. It was a very difficult period and Veronique Decrop [the French woman who started the drawing lessons in the camp] was worried about our future. The idea of a school interested us all but we knew nothing because we grew up at the Thai border. We did not know our own country.”
Vutha explains the return to Battambang, how they settled, took small jobs, studied and managed to get help to buy a rice field. He tells how hard it was, how much violence there was, how hard it was to get food and that they sometimes only had roots or wild berries to eat.
At the beginning, the founders started to work with former refugee children in very difficult situations. At the time, they did not have any youth worker or social worker degree but they learnt on their own how to care about those kids, and step by step they started to see some result.
“The beginning comes with passion and desire, knowledge comes afterwards.”
Vutha is one of the founders who focused on visual arts. He is one of the first Phare painters. Was painting a vocation for him?
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be an engineer, but the situation was so that it was simply not possible at the time. My second dream was to become an artist.” Fortunately though and despite the cruelty of the refugee camp, Site 2 also gave him the chance to attend drawing classes. At first, it was only about having fun to lighten a trauma. “Nowadays, even though I teach, I still paint a lot. It is my way of expression and it probably always will be. By the way, I don’t really see myself as a teacher, rather as someone who transmits to younger people.”
If the drawing classes woke something up in Vutha, he still needed experience and knowledge. After a while, he studied visual arts and then went to Thailand to get experience. He stayed there 4 years and then came back because of the political crisis. Back in Battambang, he became a teacher. Later on, he also spent a year in France to strengthen his knowledge of pedagogy and applied arts.
Phare was created to help children overcome the trauma of war with the help of artistic expression. Did it work on the founder himself? Is the trauma still present in Vutha?
“Of course, the past cannot be erased, the emotions lie deep within and I am still very sensitive to violence. I have seen many atrocities and today when I see violence, it reminds me of this very dark period of my life. But painting allows for a different kind of expression, it helps me live with it as a sort of self-healing process.”
One of his favorite ways of expression? Live painting, because it is only about expressing and sharing creation.
Today, the situation is different but nonetheless difficult. There are different social issues and Cambodians need to express themselves about it but they have a cultural problem with expressing such issues.
“The habit of suffering makes the expression more difficult.”
The role of Phare is to explain them the artistic technique to help them, he says. “We show the beginning of different paths so that they have the tools to choose their own. We give them guidance to find their own talent.” The basic training is observation: go where things are and express yourself there.
He who saw it from the beginning, what does he think about Phare’s evolution? Given the history of Cambodia, he is very pleased that the center extends its activities.
So what must be done is to be careful to keep a strong link between education and social work. Teacher must be further trained on the history of arts and curriculums strengthened to give kids the appropriate tools to succeed. It is of paramount importance to keep a good working atmosphere, to closely follow the kids and to take the time to fully understand their individual needs.
And what about the future of Phare? Vutha wishes to continue practicing the exchange between generations. He sees a great potential in our younger generations and I wants them to live from their art. “A very important thing to understand is that we may not be the richest but we are the happiest persons thanks to our thriving profession.”
Indeed, he is extremely proud of the success of graduates from Visual Art School. Studio Sonleuk Thmey, Lutos, Studio Art Battambang or Choco l’art are initiatives that show the professional maturity of our graduates, he says. As Vutha explains, it shows the spirit of the school: get a job and exploit the space as an art ground, solidarity, collaboration and spreading the artistic culture. “Communication is the key to adapt to professional competition and that is why we must constantly adapt our curriculum to give it a high professionalizing profile. Indeed, talent is not enough as education is the key to professional evolution, adaptation and openness.”
When talking about the importance of getting a land in Siem Reap, Vutha talks about permanence, enlargement and rebuilding. “We don’t want our youth to survive. We want them to be able to live from their art. How can you build something when you always move? A home means stability.”
By the way Vutha, didn’t you have a secret dream to tell?
“A contemporary art museum. I dream about bringing back all the artwork that is abroad and build a new cultural platform. Battambang is a place of peace. It is the home of the spirit of art that has to be preserved. A museum in Siem Reap would be a great source of inspiration and we desperately need such museums in Cambodia.”
Click the picture