My City Series | Robina Hanley
Established in 2008 to assist local high end hotels in Siem Reap accommodate their guests' quests for local contemporary art, Siem Reap Art Tours celebrates 11 years of filling an artistic gap no one knew was there. No one except Siem Reap Art Tours founder Robina Hanley, that is.
"I was working in a local gallery and I noticed more and more hotel managers calling me for information on where they should send their VIP clients who were looking for genuine gallery experiences. Having lived in Siem Reap since 2006, I have forged deep personal relationships with many artists, gallerists, curators and designers here so it was easy for me to put mini itineraries together for them."
Ms Hanley's reputation soon gained momentum and she was being approached by regional tour companies from across South East Asia in need of something refined and sophisticated for clients who wanted a little bit more after wandering through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor.
Robina touches on the vast range of media that clients are exposed to on the tour – from local lacquer artists to fine art photography, emerging Cambodian contemporary pieces and international high end modern art. With artists from Cambodia, Belgium, France, Australia, USA, UK, Hungary (to name but a few) living and working locally, finding them in temple town's little nooks is what Siem Reap Art Tours specialises in.
In addition to the artwork, the characteristics of each space visited is visually impressive and should not be overlooked. A stunning artist's studio located just outside of Siem Reap Town in a lush tropical garden is one such destination. An elegant Couture House hidden in a village of local shophouses is breathtaking, with delicate Cambodian silks exquisitely draped over elegant custom- made furniture. The diversity of artwork is a breath of fresh air; sculptures, oils, photography and textured design - everything you didn't know you were looking for.
Originally from Ireland, Robina arrived in Siem Reap in 2006 to escape the 'Celtic Tiger' era Ireland was embroiled in at the time. After managing a local bar and restaurant for a year she fell into the art scene quite by accident. "Art was always a passion but in a personal sense. I never really thought of mixing my marketing and PR skills with my love of art. Now it seems crazy that I waited so long." she adds.
After spending a few afternoons lunching with Narisara Murray in early 2008, wife and business partner of iconic fine art photographer John McDermott, she was offered the position of Curator at prestigious McDermott Gallery, where she remained for 10 years. "Working for John McDermott was such a fantastic experience. Watching peoples faces as they look at his work and discover what Angkor was like before large scale tourism, they feel the spirituality and peace that John perfectly captured in his stunning body of work."
While working with McDermott, Robina started running her unique art tours and describes them as more of educational experience than a tour. "There is no hard-sell in what we do, We are about enlightening and educating people about the very high calibre of art and design we have available here in Siem Reap. Often, I find that people just don't know where to look. They ask a hotel concierge and are directed to factories that mass produce mediocre touristic souvenirs, and that is exactly what the people who come on our tours are determined to avoid."
Now a partner in Siem Reap's chicest contemporary art space, One Eleven Gallery (sister to that of 111 Minna Gallery in San Francisco), Robina and her business partners offer a platform for local artists to showcase their work in a highly professional capacity.
Born and Raised or Expat?
Expat (originally from Dublin, Ireland).
What led you to choose your current profession? And, what steps did you take to get there?
Falling into my current position happened quite by accident yet very organically. I arrived in Siem Reap in January 2006 and quickly fell in love with the local arts scene. I managed a local art gallery for a year before stepping into a curating role in an incredible established fine art photography gallery McDermott Gallery. After fulfilling my ambitions there I joined Siem Reap’s first international contemporary art gallery, One Eleven Gallery, as a partner along with a team of diverse artistic talents.
On your Day-to-Day routine?
The wonderful experience about living in such a town like Siem Reap is that my day-to-day routine is so varied. Hosting Siem Reap Art Tours allows me to meet the most interesting people from assorted backgrounds. I have the opportunity to introduce visitors to all aspects of our creative community and, as each tour is personally curated to meet the requirements of each guest, every day is different yet still filled to the brim with the arts.
What is your favourite brunch spot, and why?
Sister Srey Café, located along the bustling riverside, is a delicious spot to watch the world go by whilst indulging in a sumptuous choice of fine fare. One of the chicest cafes for coffee and snacks, it also gives back to the local community by supporting a local NGO.
When you have guests, where in town do you like to take them for dinner?
Cuisine Wat Damnak is hands down the best restaurant in Siem Reap. It has twice been officially listed in Asia's 50 Best Restaurants, the only Cambodian eatery ever to be honored with this prestigious award. Chef Joannès Rivière’s innovative menus are inspired by the food traditions of Cambodia's golden age, when each day’s fare was made up of herbs and vegetables from the family garden and fish and game from the surrounding fields.
How has your city grown and changed since you’ve known it? Which changes did you like best? Why?
Siem Reap has grown significantly over the past thirteen years, tourism has increased in unforeseen numbers and as a result of this, huge improvements have been made in infrastructure. Better roads have been built, new businesses promoting responsible travel have emerged and with all of this comes additional education and employment, which is always wonderful for the local community and economy.
What cool festivals, if any, happen in your city?
The Angkor Photo Festival & Workshops is one of the most important annual festivals in Siem Reap (and South East Asia in fact). Since its inception in 2005, this driven team have nurtured Asia’s photographic community by providing an affordable and accessible platform for professional development and exchange. For the duration of the festival, over 300 photographers from all over the globe congregate in our little temple town to inspire, aspire and witness as established photographers mentor the Asian photographers of the future. Held in November/December annually, Siem Reap comes alive as multiple venues host a diverse range of exhibitions, workshops, talks and slideshows.
Where do you go to escape? How does this space bring you peace?
I love to escape to North-Eastern provinces, Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri are still off the beaten track for most visitors to Cambodia. They are very tranquil and extremely picturesque. The gushing waterfalls of Sen Monorom are an incredible spectacle whilst the jaw-dropping volcanic crater lake of Yaklom Lake is a `beautiful peaceful place to surround yourself with stunning nature and wildlife.
9. What’s a local brand that we must know about?
Not so much a brand but more of a product; The peppercorns of Kampot, are famed throughout the world and, like a bona fide Champagne, they can only be grown in one specific region. The peppercorns are organically grown and produced in green, black, white and red varieties, all from the same plant. They are incredibly fragrant and were recently described as “black gold” by renowned Momofuko restauranteur David Chang.
10. Where and when is your next adventure?
Hugely inspired by an incredible body of work by renowned Belgian Artist, Christian Develter, I would love to travel to the Western State in Myanmar called the Chin State. Christian spent time with the hill tribes in this region where the women of the tribes have the most intricate facial tattoos. He described his experiences with these kind and welcoming people and learned about their history and local cultures. His beautiful and vibrant paintings reflect the tribal pride strongly held within their hearts.
11. Does Travel breed creativity?
Absolutely, travel opens your heart and your mind. You are exposed to new and exciting experiences and make friends from all of the world, sharing stories along the way. People inspire people, landscapes do the same. Artists are obviously very visual people and cannot help but absorb their surroundings into their work, be it environmental, political, historical, love or indeed, heartbreak.
12. As for connecting the mind, body and soul, what do you do to promote self-love?
Although I am over 10,000km from home, I am extremely blessed to be surrounded by truly wonderful and caring people, who are now absolutely a part of my family. Having positive people around me helps balance my hardworking professional life with a remembrance to breathe, take time for oneself and appreciate every day.
13. Who is one famous figure throughout history that has particularly brought you inspiration, and why?
Frida Kahlo. What an intensely luminous and powerful lady she was. A brilliant Artist of course, then add all of her determination, elegance, courage and resilience into the mix and it is overwhelming. A life filled with torturous pain and loss, her strength never waivered. Betrayed by her broken body and her constantly unfaithful husband, she continued to turn out self-portraits detailing her immense personal suffering. She never gave up and is an inspiration to women everywhere.
14. Are there any philanthropic programmes or projects that you’re passionate about or would like to shed some light on?
APOPO is a Siem Reap based local organization that saves lives through their humanitarian landmine removal operations. There are still over 10,000,000 UXOs (unexploded ordinances) dotted throughout the Kingdom of Cambodia. APOPO are famed for their innovative use of rats to help detect landmines. The rats are highly trained to sniff out the TNT that is within the mine and because they are so light footed, they do not activate the device. It’s a highly respected organization locally and no lives are lost in the process, however many are saved.
15. Entrepreneurs, Tastemakers and Trailblazers, where do people like you hangout in your city?
One Eleven Gallery is a hugely important local hangout for Artists, hoteliers, teachers and NGO workers. Its location in the heart of Siem Reap attracts the most interesting people, all eager to share their exciting experiences, while the bar serves up an array of delicious signature cocktails and international wines.
16. Give a shout-out to someone in your city that is doing groundbreaking things, and what is it that makes them a trailblazer?
Jessica Lim, the Director of the Angkor Photo Festival and Workshops is a person of huge significance in her field. Dedicating her festival in Siem Reap every year to the educational platform for young emerging Asian photographers. Offering free workshops/scholarships under the experienced eyes of hugely inspirational professionals from across the world. Jessica works tirelessly fundraising for this event of which she is extremely passionate about and makes a huge difference to the next generation of serious and devout photographers.
17. Advice for budding entrepreneurs?
Nothing comes to those who procrastinate. Always strive, never stop working and never give up on yourself, no matter what obstacles are placed before you. It takes time but if you believe in yourself, others will too.
18. We’re living in a world where our attention to new innovation doesn’t seem to have longevity, how do you find your inspiration to make new waves with long-term prosperity?
I am very passionate about what I do and the Artists I represent. Artists embody creativity and innovation. They are constantly moving forward and are inspired by their families, co-workers, fellow students, teachers, terrain, history, etc. I feel that Artists are the exception when it comes to the lack of longevity, what they create is admired and talked about for a very long time.
19. Please share a playlist that embodies your work. What about this particular music brings you inspiration?
My playlist is ever changing, I am inspired by different musicians every day. I enthusiastically jump from Strauss and Mozart to David Bowie and Tom Waits. I draw on all Artists and what they produce, it all moves me in different ways at different times and I embrace every moment as a result.