Phare Ponleu Selpak means `the brightness of the arts’ in Khmer, and in the past two decades few organisations have done as much to nurture and support the bright young talents of Cambodia. Based in Battambang in the country’s northwest, the NGO provides artistic training, education and social support to more than 1,000 students every day. Its prestigious programmes include arts schools, a world-renowned circus and, now, the Phare Creative Studio.
In a country where creative talents can often be overlooked due to an economy with relatively little diversity, the studio offers employment opportunities for graduates of Phare’s own Visual and Applied Arts School (VAAS), who might otherwise have found themselves, diploma in hand, wondering: `What next?’
The studio’s young staff works in fields including graphic design, illustration, animation, visual arts and more, with their work for clients from Lawyers Without Borders to Unesco appearing widely throughout Cambodia as well as abroad. Often, the staff are given creative freedom to explore, especially topics with an emphasis on social issues. Floating Away, a tragic animation film about the dichotomy between the hopes and often-exploitative reality of economic migration, released in 2010 for Oxfam United and the River Kids Foundation, is a perfect case in point.
The studio’s artists are afforded a high-tech space to chase their dreams of positively shaping Cambodia and, perhaps more importantly, also provided with health insurance for their entire family and a competitive salary – rare benefits in Cambodia, especially for artists.
Now an animator at the studio, Sin Thoukna came from humble beginnings. One of nine children in his family in Battambang province, Thoukna felt a passion for drawing from a young age but, unaware of any outlets to pursue it, and unable to afford a university education, he found himself living in a pagoda, struggling to find his way.
At 20, he enrolled at VAAS and now works at the studio for clients such as the Apsara Authority in Siem Reap, the agency tasked with maintaining the Angkor Archaeological Park. The studio’s work for the authority includes an inventive poster promoting cultural diversity along the Tonle Sap river.
“I feel proud that lots of people are amazed because young Cambodians can produce such good work,” Sin told Southeast Asia Globe. “Cambodia is transforming and education is critical.”
Phare Creative Studio not only instils Cambodian artists with the confidence to dream, but also with the skills to potentially achieve those ambitions.
“If you are here in Battambang working with the young graduates and the teachers, you feel the spirit to continue to learn and do something for their country, for their community and for art,” said Coralie Baudet, the studio’s manager.