Cambodian Modernism By Nelson, Roger
Cambodian modernity was chiefly shaped by the forces of colonization, decolonization, and the Cold War. These influences had singular consequences for art and culture in Cambodia, in turn shaping a distinct Cambodian modernism. From the establishment of a national art school in 1918 until the 1940s, Cambodian artists were forbidden to use forms that were perceived to be European. This was the result of a strict cultural policy designed to preserve and protect what were thought of as authentically traditional Cambodian arts and crafts. In the 1950s and 1960s, during King Norodom Sihanouk’s independent Cambodian Sangkum Reastr Niyum [People’s Socialist Community], the arts flourished as a key site for articulating a new nationalist identity. However, the promise of this period—popularly remembered as a cultural golden age—was shattered by violent political upheavals, beginning with the outbreak of civil war in 1970. During Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime of 1975–1979, approximately 1.7 million Cambodians perished, including an estimated ninety per cent of all artists and intellectuals. Under the regime, most familiar forms of art and culture were forbidden. In 1979, invading Vietnamese forces ousted the Khmer Rouge and in the following decade artistic production focused on rebuilding after the devastation. Finally, the 1992–1993 United Nations occupation of Cambodia heralded a new era of transnational cultural exchanges, often based in discourses of aid and development.