Forgiveness and Remembrance in Action

An effort to help restore Cambodian culture.

Muy-Theam Lim is a visual artist living and working in Siem Reap, the charming gateway to the heritage site of Angkor temples in Cambodia. That his own painting—focused he explains “on healing and creating love, compassion, and forgiveness after the Pol Pot era”—is now receiving significant recognition from major galleries and museums around the world is ample evidence that his goal of honoring and preserving Cambodian culture while reminding us of repression’s dark and only too recent days is one that touches hearts and minds everywhere.

But Theam’s contribution to the restoration and preservation of Cambodian culture and its lifestyle doesn’t stop with his painting—since his 1994 return from Paris to be reunited, as he says, “with those I had left behind”—he has spent part of each day helping revive the Cambodian craft sector by teaching teams of young apprentices from the countryside how to use traditional Khmer craftsmanship to create art out of time-honored materials like stone, wood, lacquer, silk, and cotton. In the process, these largely unschooled 18-24-year-olds from poor families learn how to successfully integrate themselves into and build community while earning livings that are both highly-esteemed by the culture and founded on ecological and social sustainability. Also that are fitting illustrations of Theam’s business model—built as it is he says on “human value, identity, authenticity, and respect as well as sustainability.”

The very appealing and much admired craft these young artisans produce is rooted in the venerable Khmer belief and lifestyle. It is lovingly exhibited and sold in “Theam’s House,” a handsome traditional wooden structure magically set on the outskirts of Siem Reap in gardens full of flowering foliage and ancient trees which, when lit by candles at night, look like alters to the gods. Visitors are warmly welcomed into this large and growing family manifesting beauty, love, and a rich spiritual world so strongly as to make them seem palpable.

Another section of the village that is “Theam’s House” shelters the artist’s painting studio. Interior-design training at Ecole Boule and a sound artistic and technical education at France’s prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Paris prepared Theam to create his own unique and innovative style that might be over-simply described as using boards instead of canvas and featuring paint that is sanded and lacquered after being laid on. He frequently captures bold scenes of everyday life in his foregrounds while showing representations of the shameful torture doled out by Pol Pot and his cronies in his backgrounds. In this way Theam achieves another one of his goals—that of reminding us of life’s dark side in the fervent hope that we will not let it happen again at the same time we strive to preserve and share Khmer culture.

Muy-Theam Lim was born in Cambodia’s southern Takeo Province. He was nine years old in 1978 when the Khmer Rouge regime fell and Vietnam invaded Cambodia. Luckily enough, his family was among the refugees arriving France in 1980 and it was there that his discovery of his passion for the arts and for peace gave him “new meaning in life.”

When he returned to Cambodia in 1994, he began an earnest and deeply personal effort to understand the art and style of his native country. At that time, he explains, “there were no precedents, no presence of any art or style, and people didn’t even speak very well.” This led him to researching, rediscovering, and compiling relevant information and it wasn’t long before he realized that “the country gathers creations from everywhere in an astonishing amalgam and the eye is carried by colorful disparities and diversities in shapes, colors, and materials. The city bursts into contrasts and incoherencies, in a style unlike any other.”

For five years Theam “trawled through temples and pagodas, visited people’s homes, and studied whatever artwork and artifacts I could lay my hands on.” By 1997 he was invited to join the European Union’s Siem Reap-based Chantiers-Ecoles program, where he enthusiastically set to work on the creation, branding, and execution of the now-famous Artisans d’Angkor project. He served for 12 years as its artistic director before launching Theam’s House—home of his team of artisan protégés—and embarking on his own creative painting journey.

Rightfully heralded as one of the few overseas Cambodians helping to heal broken hearts ravaged by war, disease, famine, and social instability through his efforts to revive the Cambodian craft sector and reduce rural poverty, Muy-Theam Lim provides us with daily reminders of the transformative power that love and forgiveness can have in our lives.

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Jeanne Golly is a professor at NYC’s Fashion Institute of Technology.  She is at work on a manuscript on contemporary Southeast Asian artists.”



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