Sa Sa Art Projects is Phnom Penh's only not-for-profit artist-run space dedicated for experimental art practices. It was founded in 2010 by the Cambodian arts collective Stiev Selapak (active members: Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina and Vuth Lyno) and is located in a historic and vibrant apartment complex known as the White Building.
Sa Sa Art Projects aims to facilitate artistic knowledge production and sharing through experimentations and collaborations. Sa Sa Art Projects engages with Cambodian and visiting artists, creative individuals and groups, students, and the White Building’s residents to realise art projects and events that are accessible and enjoyable by everyday Cambodians
Sa Sa Art Projects is founded by the artists group - Stiev Selapak, and it has been through many status of different art practices. I would like to take the chance of this interview to have a deeper understanding about your awareness when Stiev Selapak first started in 2007. In 2007, what was the motivation prompted six of you, as an artist, to set up Stiev Selapak? And how you decided to become an artist group as a way of action, to face the art environments at that time?
We formed Stiev Selapak in 2007 as a way to continue learning and growing as artists. We believed that by sticking together, we could better share ideas and learn together faster. We also wanted to form a local voice and to figure out how we could develop some sort of supporting structure or mechanism for the art and facilitate more local artists, within the context of predominantly foreign-run art spaces at that time. Perhaps at first it was a dream to dream. We learned as we moved along. Vandy Rattana played an important role of leadership at the beginning of our collective’s experience.
Being support by Baitong Restaurant, Sa Sa Art Gallery was founded in 2009. Stiev Selapak became not just being an artists group, but also manage an art space. Through this physical interface, Stiev Selapak seems created more possibility of public practice. How you define this art space?
2009 saw a sad closure of Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture, a significant institution directed by Ly Daravuth and scholar Ingrid Muan, which for 10 years had committed to research, pedagogy, and support for Cambodian art and culture. Reyum had built perhaps one of the largest Cambodian and diverse audiences for the art in Phnom Penh. Sa Sa Art Gallery was established in 2009 partly in response to Reyum’s closure by continuing to engage with local energy and audience, and partly for Stiev Selapak to realise our first dream to have a locally-run art space to showcase our collective’s works independently. Sa Sa Art Gallery was tiny, the smallest gallery space in the city, but we drew a good energy of largely Cambodian audience. We then expanded to exhibit works not only by our collective, but also by other young Cambodian artists from Phnom Penh and Battambang. We then expanded to run free art class every Sunday with about 20 high schools students from the city and nearby province as a way to engage and share with younger generation.
In 2010 Sa Sa Art Gallery became to have two different parts: SA SA BASSAC and Sa Sa Art Projects. SA SA BASSAC is located at the bank of river BASSAC, and it’s a quite successful art gallery in the art markets; while Sa Sa Art Projects is a non-profit-project that operate in a building with special history background--the White Building. Because of this change, thus Stiev Selapak played a more multiple role in conducting two different projects. What’s the mission was given to these two different forms of space? And how these two spaces work together or result differences?
Due to very small space of Sa Sa Art Gallery, we felt we couldn’t do much activities. So we decided to open another space called Sa Sa Art Projects in 2010 and it was only possible through tremendous support from artists and art communities in Cambodia. Artists generously donated their works and we held fundraising auction. Sa Sa Art Projects was dedicated for non-exhibition programming including art classes, residencies and other experimental collaborative works that we wanted to explore.
We chose the White Building as the base for Sa Sa Art Projects because of its historical significance as the first experimental social housing in modern apartment setting located within the public and culture district Bassac River Front, as well as because of its presently vibrant community of artists and mostly low to mid income residents. We believed that there was room we could engage in the art with everyday people and artists like those living at the White Building. On the other hand, later in 2011, we decided to merge Sa Sa Art Gallery with Bassac Project by curator Erin Gleeson to establish SA SA BASSAC, a new contemporary gallery and library space to focus on exhibition making and sharing of Cambodian contemporary art locally and internationally. While Erin Gleeson directs and runs SA SA BASSAC to promote more established artists locally and internationally, Stiev Selapak directs and runs Sa Sa Art Projects as a lab for knowledge exchange and school for upcoming generation of artists. Art graduates from Sa Sa Art Projects would also have opportunities to exhibit at SA SA BASSAC. The two spaces also collaborate on specific projects and events.
For years, Sa Sa Art Projects have conducted including art education, community project and the artist residency project- “Pisaot”, and also being closely related with White Building community. During my residency in White Building, I can feel you have deep relationships and friendships with the local residents and students who attended your art class before. As I saw this gathered community, I wondered what was the motivation that you first started form those projects? Have you already set an intended goal for Sa Sa Art Projects to do in White Building?
The choice for Sa Sa Art Projects to be at the White Building was based on the history and context of the site and its residing community. We wanted to do something that filled the gap of what other art spaces in Phnom Penh were already doing, which mostly were and still are gallery spaces. We also wanted to complement the existing art education offered at the Royal University of Fine Arts, and foster new generation of young artists. We wanted to engage with ordinary audience that did not usually interact with contemporary arts, like the food vendors and young students at the White Building. And that’s what we have been doing. We started to see positive responses from the residents there to support, participate, and engage with the projects. Our students have started to produce works, participate in residencies and exhibitions locally and within the region. This dialogue and energy from this new generation of young artists are encouraging and I think it’s a good indicator of productive process in enriching the art communities in Cambodia.
It has been six years that Sa Sa Art Projects located in the White Building, most of the past projects mostly were also related with this building, the residents inside, and its extended community. But in this recent two years I often heard about that the White Building will be demolish soon, how do you consider this issue? And if Sa Sa Art Projects leave White Building, what will be the next step? And what is your future plan?
The government has recently made an official decision to redevelop the White Building. The current building will be torn down and a new and much taller structure will be built which will include residential apartments and commercial spaces. The government has offered the residents a replacement of new apartments, or to buy off. The negotiation is underway, though it looks like many residents prefer to sell off their apartments. As for us at Sa Sa Art Projects, we are listening to what the residents want and we will take it from there. It would be unfortunate, if this creative community dispersed. However, I think anything changes, and we will need to adapt to change. Sa Sa Art Projects might change the location and programming based on the new vision to be mapped over the next couple of months. The most central questions are what have we learned and what is most relevant next for Sa Sa Art Projects?