This local guide to the Siem Reap arts scene and creative community comes from designer, gallery owner and entrepreneur Loven Ramos. Siem Reap has a rich artistic and cultural heritage, evident in its Angkor temple architecture and elaborate carvings, and in the classical Khmer dance and music, but we didn’t expect to find such as vibrant creative community and lively contemporary culture and arts scene when we visited the Cambodian city.
We got an insight into the Siem Reap arts scene on our first trip to the city to research dining, drinking and shopping for magazine stories. As we were making our way around the shops, galleries, cafés, and bars, one name kept coming up: Loven Ramos. Ramos is a 33 year-old designer from the Philippines who started Poetry boutique and the Art Deli café (both now closed); and 1961, an exhibition space, artists retreat and café. We met Loven at 1961.
GT: What’s your connection to Siem Reap?
LR: I came to Siem Reap seven years ago as a graphic designer and creative consultant for a hotel. After a year, I quit my job and started Spoolworks, as there was a growing demand for what I do. After a couple of years, I was able to turn what I love doing into a business through Poetry, which I opened with a friend, the fashion designer, Don Protasio. Poetry was an Aladdin’s cave of posters, stickers, postcards, handmade accessories, bags, clothing, and almost everything under the sun, really.
After a year, I met another kindred soul in art, Jam Ramjattan, who I collaborated with to form Art Deli, which was our reaction to the adverse effects of the economic slump on the art world. We wanted to take art out of its institutionalized idea and turn it into an everyday need. So we turned it into a ‘grocery’ concept, selling art for as low as a dollar and collaborating with a bunch of artists to take their work out of rock star status and make their art accessible to everybody. This was originally an art attack project, but it became a hit. Then we opened 1961, which is a hybrid of an art hotel, gallery, art studio, boutique, and creative space.
Describe Siem Reap.
Dusty yet slick, provincial but very cosmopolitan, boring but no day is ever the same, slow but it can leave you breathless, enchanting and magical, flawed and unassumingly perfect.
What makes Siem Reap special?
Aside from the fact that they have such an impressive cultural legacy and a thousand years’ worth of spectacular temples to boot, it’s the people.
Why does it appeal to artists and creative people?
The town is brimming with visual and emotional explosions. For someone who is in the creative business, it has an uncanny ability to make one feel so much at home while making you feel like a total stranger at the same time. That feeling alone is enough to make your creative juices go awry!
Tell us about the Siem Reap arts scene and cultural life.
The great thing about Siem Reap is the mix of local and foreign artists making their mark here. For such a small town, the diversity of artistic personalities and work created and exhibited here is surprising. The interaction between them is fascinating. When we launched the first Angkor Art Explo, a three-week art festival, it was more than we expected. The amount of art we showed was immense and the reception was great. The Angkor Photo Festival has been charging up the level of artistic activity here for seven years and a major film festival is also coming this way.
What places should creative types and art tourists check out?
The original embassies of art here were the McDermott Galleries, Theam’s House, the Angkor National Museum, the Friends Centre at the Angkor Hospital for Children, and of course 1961 is dedicated to pushing the envelope. Other interesting creative wonderlands that one should not miss out on as well are the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles, Eric Raisina’s atelier, Galerie Cambodge, Prolung Khmer Pottery and Weaving Centre, Wa Gallery, and Pisith Ly’s Garden of Desire. Visitors should consult a local or seasoned expat for more tips when in town.
Who are the local talents that visitors should look out for?
Pisith Ly has a jewellery shop where he displays his original works and each piece has an interesting story on its own and hearing each one of them is a journey worth taking home. Another one is Savann Oun, who curated the Arts Lounge at the former Hotel de la Paix. He doesn’t have his own gallery but he is such a fascinating artist with equally fascinating works. There is also Soun Seney who runs the gallery at Colours of Cambodia who has matured in leaps and bounds in his works. We have exhibited his work at 1961.
Where can creative types go to meet other like-minded locals?
1961, local cafés, and exhibition openings – anywhere where there is coffee, booze and conversation really!
Any opportunities for artistic travellers to give something back?
You’ll be surprised to know that for such a creative country, they don’t have art classes at all school levels, so volunteering to teach art at any school will go a long way! You are never too far from a local school, but the further you get out of town, the more profound the need becomes.
Tell us more about 1961.
1961 is a mad mix of sorts really. It’s a series of galleries, a hotel, and a creative venue. We opened in March this year and it’s a constantly evolving space. We have had several exhibitions, a plethora of workshops – from creative writing and silk screen printing to dance and even permaculture. We’ve also had flea markets, theatre performances, and international movie premieres. To sum it up, it’s a blank canvas. Oh, and did I mention that it’ s also where I live with my family? It’s a place for my wife Faith and I to bring together our love for the arts and the 1960s into reality – and for the artists who have become our cohorts along the way!
Is there a regular program of events and exhibitions?
Our first exhibition lasted three months, but for the past four months we’ve been changing exhibitions every month because of the amazing array of artists we have on our roster. Our next exhibition is a two-man show featuring the works of Cambodian artist Soun Seney and British artist Nic Grey. In January, we’re featuring the new works of Cambodian-based French artist Vincent Broustet and the visually arresting African photographs of Canadian photographer Heather Stillwell.
Best Siem Reap souvenir?
Finding your soul here. That’s the perfect souvenir.
If you’re an artist, designer or creative type living or spending time in Siem Reap and you have more tips for other creative types, artists, art buffs, and culture vultures visiting Siem Reap, feel free to leave them in the Comments below.