Space to Spark Creativity in the Cambodian Capital

Four female artists have joined forces to launch free accommodation and work space for creatives visiting the capital from the provinces to join art-related events.
tiSamjort founders (left to right) - Say Tola, Neak Sophal, Tan Vatey and Sao Sreymao. Picture: Lim Sokchanlina/Sa_Sa_Art project
tiSamjort founders (left to right) - Say Tola, Neak Sophal, Tan Vatey and Sao Sreymao. Picture: Lim Sokchanlina/Sa_Sa_Art project

Artists, cultural workers and students can spark their creative spirit at free coworking space, tiSamjort, which features a gallery and short-term accommodation for those visiting the capital from the provinces.

Launched during the pandemic in Phnom Penh’s Monourom commune, the space is now home to visionaries with diverse work backgrounds and skills. The aim of the coworking space is to provide the public, especially those with interests in arts, with the chance to come together, create works and cultivate the spirit of sharing knowledge with young people in the community.

Artists often face financial problems finding affordable accommodation when they travel to attend art forums, seminars and other arts programs in Phnom Penh. This issue was the driving factor behind the group of female founders, who dreamed of creating a place for them to work with people within the art network.

In 2020, they created tiSamjort as a home in Phnom Penh for visiting artists and other creatives. It is not known how many guests have stayed there since it was established. The founders have paid the rent, electricity, water, Wi-Fi and trash fees, out of their own pockets.

tiSamjort is the birthplace of friendship, creativity, art discussions and a source of inspiration for works – not only for artists but the space welcomes people from all walks of life. In addition, it is a place for people living in Phnom Penh to meet, get creative and cultivate the spirit of sharing knowledge with others in their community.

A working desk at tiSamjort. Picture: Meas Molika
A working desk at tiSamjort. Picture: Meas Molika

How tiSamjort Began

The four female founders found the inspiration to create tiSamjort after being involved in joint art project, សិល្បៈពនេចរ_NomadiX Art Tour. The aim of the tour was to share the knowledge of visual arts with local people and students in Kampot province.

The project involves interactive workshops, panel discussions, performing arts, film screenings, and artworks by visual artists and students. One artist from one province is also invited to Phnom Penh to showcase and discuss their work. It was during this time that the founders discovered many issues for artists.

They started with the idea of renting a house to store items. Next, they came up with a humanitarian idea to help solve issues of students and artists from the provinces lacking a place to stay short-term when visiting the capital.

Hotels and guesthouses in urban areas are expensive for those travelling from provinces to join workshops in Phnom Penh.

“Initially, we didn’t have any specific goal. First, we just knew that we wanted to rent one house to keep our materials. Secondly, we wanted a space for gathering and working together,” said Say Tola, co-founder of tiSamjort.

She added, “Whenever we go to provinces, we always hear them [artists] talking about traveling to Phnom Penh to learn at workshops. Many good workshops or training programs are often in Phnom Penh only. If they want to join in, they can’t afford travel and staying there.”

A place to sleep at tiSamjort. Picture: Meas Molika
A place to sleep at tiSamjort. Picture: Meas Molika

Introducing the founders of tiSamjort

Sao Sreymao,37, was born in Site 2 refugee camp on the Thai border, and lives in Phnom Penh. She is a multidisciplinary artist, whose skills span painting, photography, digital drawing, sculpture, and performance.

Her work explores personal expression and memories, as well as the changing physical and psychological landscapes of Cambodia’s urban and rural communities. She has also collaborated with various writers in visual storytelling and published a number of graphic novels. Sreymao is a skilled and experienced consultant working in the NGO sector and can cater her work to the specific needs of the project.

Sreymao said under the roof of tiSamjort lived on the warm and happy memories of her hometown art teacher, who fueled her passions during childhood and lives on in her mind. With the space, Sreymao wants to rekindle the feelings attached to home and provide a safe place where ideas are nurtured, knowledge is shared and friendships are forged under one roof – all without judgement.

This desire to help her peers was further inspired when her beloved art teacher and audio-visual artist, Srey Bandaul, died last year. The cofounder of award-winning Phare Ponleu Selpak died in August 2021 at the age of 53 after catching Covid-19.

Sreymao thinks her teacher’s love for his students played a huge part in her inspiration and motivation to create tiSamjort as a home for people to come together under the same roof.

“I want all young people who really want a place to do their work or study, I don’t mind whoever or whatever fields they are coming from. For instance, during Covid-19, there were students who came here and just wanted the internet for learning. I'm happy to see them studying because if they go to a coffee shop, they have to pay for a coffee. Some students cannot afford that and they only want a place that provides internet for research,” said Sreymao.

Neak Sophal was born in 1989 in Takeo. The Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh graduate has a growing reputation for her distinct aesthetic and ongoing thematic exploration of Cambodian society. Through composed portraiture, staged collaboratively with her subjects, Sophal’s artwork challenges social structures, illuminating the hidden memories and fear that animate people’s lives and identities.

Say Tola is a passionate writer and researcher of arts. She worked for the Khmer Times from 2017 to 2019, during which time she wrote about Cambodia’s arts scene. She has also worked as the core organizing team for the ‘Khmer Literature Festival’ for four years.

Her keen interest in arts and culture research saw her play a significant role in ‘Her Sounds’ project as a coordinator in 2019. That year, she also became a resident researcher with Heritage Hub Residency at the REPfest New Traditional Music Festival.

In 2020, Tola worked as a research assistant on an international project called “Cambodian Mouth Harp” as part of the Endangered Material Knowledge program. All these projects gave her the opportunity to travel throughout Cambodia to witness diverse arts and cultural practices in various communities.

Tola also has a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Paññāsāstra University, Cambodia. Currently, she works freelance in the community arts and culture field.

Tola, also research coordinator at Cambodian Living Arts, said their vision of creating tiSamjort is born from a desire to see more creative activities take place in rural areas, especially for kids. “Our vision is wishing to see more art activities in remote areas because we see people, especially kids, do not acknowledge what is art since they lack access to it,” said Tola.

Arts work at tiSamjort. Picture: Meas Molika
Arts work at tiSamjort. Picture: Meas Molika

Tan Vatey was born in 1992 in Phnom Penh and works as an interdisciplinary artist and designer who also enjoys collaborating with other artists and non-profits. Vatey has exhibited extensively within Cambodia, Jakarta, Southeast Asia and more.

It was during a group exhibition at Galeri Nasional Indonesia in Jakarta that she met Indonesian-Belgian arts-instigator Sinta Wibowo, who became her partner in life and work.

Together, Vatey and Sinta initiated the walkshops [watch & wa/onder] and traveled to Indonesia, China and Cambodia as part of the project that explores normalization by inhabiting our habits. Vatey has also been an artist in residency at Phnom Penh’s Sa Sa Bassac, Newfoundland in Belgium, e x t a n t a t i o n in Chiang Mai, Horse Pen in Shaxi, Vermont Studio Center in the US, and led artist talks at Asia Society and Asian Arts Council in NYC. She is also part of the NomadiX Art Tour, conducting workshops in schools around Cambodia.

Another project member is Tan Vatey, 30. The interdisciplinary artist and designer, who also enjoys collaborating with other artists and nonprofits, told Kiripost of the importance of having a place for group gatherings and share experiences from inclusion.

“Sometimes, elders can learn from young people and vice versa. We learn from each other. Diverse skills or people without specific skills, it does not matter. As a group, we can observe and be able to spark an idea to create an achievement or work,” said Vatey.

Neak Sophal, 33, is a freelance photographer and graphic designer, and as a founder of tiSamjort, believes social connection plays a significant role in art.

“I think if there is no communication and connection, there is nothing. If there are no social gatherings and discussions, our lives have no meaning because we live alone without depending on each other. Therefore, tiSamjort plays a crucial role in bringing people together,” said Sophal.

Arts work at tiSamjort. Picture: Meas Molika
Arts work at tiSamjort. Picture: Meas Molika

This year, tiSamjort has collaborated with Sa Sa Art Project for the first time as a space to organize workshops this month, under the theme "Threshold". It is the first group exhibition by tiSamjort artists, introducing new artworks by Tan Vatey, Neak Sophal, and Sao Sreymao, and writer Say Tola.

“Until now, we are still focusing on community works and we need funds in order to let us do work like organizing workshops or art activities in remote areas for children to understand what art is. To sustain this [free space] in the long run, we cannot depend on our budgets all the time,” she said. Tola and her team are calling for support to make tiSamjort sustainable in the long-run.

To get a free space to work or a room for short-term accommodation, the public must reserve in and leave details, such as length and purpose of stay, via the official Facebook page. Guests must be 18-years-old or above.