" I am very happy to contribute in my own way to the development of this unrecognized and neglected heritage"
Borany Mam was born in 1985 in Poitiers, France. She was named after one of her father's younger sisters. Her father, who is Cambodian, left Phnom Penh three days before it fell under the control of the Khmer Rouge to go study in France. Her mother is of French origin. Growing up in France, talking about Cambodia was a taboo subject as it brought her father great pain with the loss of his family. It wasn't until a family trip back to Cambodia in 2000 that opened the door for Borany to learn and reconnect with her roots. Four years ago Borany made the move back to Cambodia with her parents and began the process of discovery, connection, and contribution.
Educated as as an artist specializing in art restoration, Borany founded Association pour la Sauvegarde de la Peinture Khmère (ASPK), an organization dedicated to helping the restoration of paintings at the National Museum of Cambodia. While she is contributing to the restoration of art there, she is also exploring exciting opportunities through the opening of a new restaurant and an upcoming clothing line.
Read Borany's story, from growing up in France and knowing little about Cambodia and her father's painful past, to fully reconnecting with the country and contributing in her own unique way.
Q: When and how did your family leave Cambodia?
Native of Phnom Penh, my father left this city in 1975, three days before the fall of the country, with 4 friends of his. He had to go to France to study. He never heard from is family again.
Q: What was it like growing up in France? What were some of the difficulties you and your family experienced growing up?
I had no issue at all growing up in France, because I was born there, and because despite my Cambodian origins, I have always felt French. I was raised in the French tradition, attended private institutions where I was always considered as French. This double nationality is for me strength, an advantage over others, a cultural enrichment.
Unlike my sister or my brother, I have always wanted to discover my roots, to learn more about my father’s past. Before our first family trip in 2000 my father never brought up this topic. The loss of his family was a deep trauma for him, and I think it will always be, as for thousands of Khmer nationals. When he arrived in France, he was only 20 and he had to quickly manage on his own. The fact that he was not alone but with friends saved him. They helped each other. Since then my father feels he doesn’t belong to either country: neither France where he is considered a foreigner nor Cambodia where he is called “Barang'' despite his typical Khmer attributes (dark skin, face like the statues of the ''Ta Prohm'' temple, as I fondly call him). Here his style and attitude betray his European education.
Q: What were some fond memories you have of your childhood?
When I was a kid my maternal grandparents used to take me to and pick me up after school. As a former teacher, my grandmother made me do my homework. They had a very important place in my life because they were my only grandparents. For my father, they also played the role of the parents that he had lost. I like to imagine that one day perhaps they would all meet.
One evening, I was maybe 8 or 10 years old, I remember telling them that someday I would live in Cambodia. I had no idea what the country was like, except through the Khmer tales that my parents read me and the books about the Angkor temples from the library. My grandparents and my father laughed, surprised, as at the time, we never talked about Cambodia. It’s been 4 years now that my parents and I live in Phnom Penh.
Q: Who has been the most influential person in your life and why?
The most influential person in my life is with no doubt my father. I’ve always admired him and his history a lot. Despite the loss of his family, he found the strength to move forward and to build his own family. It has become over the years a true pillar for me. I feel I can discuss any topics with him, he will always listen. I value a lot his opinion and his advice. He likes to hang out with younger people, I think that's why he is still young at heart and dynamic.
Q: How did you maintain your Khmer roots growing up in France?
As said previously there was a before and after 2000.
Before this year, Cambodia and especially my father’s childhood was a taboo subject. Our first trip was a kind of revelation for the whole family and especially for my father. From there, all his buried memories resurfaced and he started to open up. He told us about his happy childhood with his siblings, his mother who pampered him because he was the eldest boy, his vespa rides along the river and his weekends in the countryside at his grandparents’, with his grandfather smoking opium. He gave us the image of a carefree childhood in a blooming Phnom Penh full of trees where life was sweet.
Since then, Cambodia has taken and will remain one of the main topics of conversation in the family.
Q: When and how did you get interested in art? What artist inspired you and why?
Since I was a child, I was always so interested in arts as my great-grandfather was a painter. I guess this has influenced me, as most of his paintings were hung on the walls of my grandparents house, and it raised my curiosity in the art field. I decided then to take some drawing lessons. Once I got my university entrance examination, I chose the theoretical artistic subject within my Art History studies. After three years, I tried to look for something more practical. That was the reason why I started a restoration school in which I could combine theory and practice related to the field I was passionate about.
I have always been impressed by Gauguin’s work, a French artist considered one of the great painters of the XIX century and forefather of the modern art. I am touched by his way of painting, the colors he used, the themes he always presented with a kind of exoticism. Some years ago, I went to visit one of his exhibitions in Paris, and I was completely overwhelmed by most of his work. That precise moment left a mark on me, and very few artists have had the same impact as Gauguin does.
Q: When was your first trip back to Cambodia? What were your impressions?
My first trip to Cambodia with my family was in August 2000. At that time I was 15 years old, and that marked my family forever.
After 25 years of silence, my father was suddenly caught by all his memories and that was the first time I saw him crying. He discovered a new Cambodia, completely different from his childhood. Everything seemed changed for him.
For me, it was also a discovery trip and I was not disappointed at all. Besides, I was happy to finally discover that little part of me that made me so different from other girls of my age.
Q: Why did you decide to come back to Cambodia and start ASPK?
At the beginning it was a family decision. After many return trips, my parents decided to move to Phnom Penh just for a period of time a year. After I got my painting restoration diploma, my partner and I decided to give it a go and finally moved to Cambodia.
When I arrived here, I met the National Museum Director in order to offer him my services, as I have noticed some of the paintings needed an urgent restoration. The Director was pleased and provided me with an atelier at the Museum. From the beginning it was acknowledged that if I wanted to carry out my project, I should find funds by myself, as the Museum did not have the necessary funding. From that moment, the very first painting restoration department was born and I created an Association called the ASPK, in order to protect Khmers paintings in Cambodia.
The ASPK has set some goals as the conservation and restoration of the paintings at the National Museum, and their promotion through an exhibition and a professional training.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for art restoration for Cambodia?
The restoration of the Cambodian paintings is very important for the coming generations. These paintings are an unique cultural heritage in the world because of their very rarity in the kingdom. Unfortunately, the conservation and safeguarding of this heritage were not a priority until now. The majority of art sculptures which has reached the peak with the Angkor temples mobilized the interest of restorers at the cost of painting, a secondary and forsaken art.
Many historians such as Vittorio Roveda, Jacqueline and Guy Nafilyan or Dominique and Danielle Gueret raised the alarm about the urgency of the situation. Indeed, the Cambodian painting is now in danger. Now their conservation status must draw attention. This is a real project of collective memory.
Q: Since being in Cambodia what has been your proudest/memorable moment?
Since being in Cambodia my proudest moment is certainly when I saw the first two paintings that I restored - two pendants representing views of Phnom Penh painted by a French artist - re-hung in the museum rooms. I am very happy to contribute in my own way to the development of this unrecognized and neglected heritage. I hope this project will lead to a big exhibition of works of art - some of them have never been exhibited - in order to introduce this part of the Khmer heritage to the Cambodian people and to the world.
Q: Why should the Khmer diaspora come back to Cambodia?
To me Cambodia is a land of opportunity where entrepreneurship is easier than anywhere else. I am a clear example. Despite my activity at the National Museum I also opened 'Bistrot Bassac' a restaurant with my boyfriend and in few months my sister and I will launch our own clothing brand that will be called "Un Ete à Kep -sur- Mer". I would never have imagined to open a restaurant and a shop if I have stayed in France, can you imagine?
However, you have to deal with a totally different way of thinking here wich makes everyday life not that simple as it seems. Every rose has its thorn but that seems worthwhile.
Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to young Khmer people in your generation either living in Cambodia or abroad?
Find the right balance between the two cultures. Ideally you should be able to reconcile both: living half of the year in Europe and the other half in Asia so you can take advantage of the two cultures.
For more information about ASPK, visit: www.aspk.asia
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