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the battambang renaissance

matthew lorenzon: cambodia


Battambang airport Battambang airport
photo Justin Lorenzon
I AM AT BATTAMBANG AIRPORT IN NORTH-WESTERN CAMBODIA AS THE SETTING SUN GLOWS RED BEHIND A HAZE OF DUST AND SMOKE. SINCE THE ROADS TO THE NATION’S CAPITAL, PHNOM PENH, HAVE BEEN IMPROVED THE AIRFIELD HAS BECOME A HANGOUT FOR THE CITY’S YOUTH.

I am learning to ride a motorbike but don’t get far down the runway before meeting Bo Rithy. He is one of the artists enjoying the Battambang artistic renaissance promoted by recent articles in the Cambodia Daily and the New York Times (Travel, Dec 18, 2011). But where does this scene come from and what are its most pressing challenges today?

With expanding international horizons Battambang’s artists are searching for the contemporary surrounded by, but cut off from, the past. Without direct access to the mannerisms of contemporary art there is a question as to exactly what being contemporary means.

A New York Times’ article in December last year advertised Battambang’s historic palimpsest of pagodas, colonial villas and 1960s Cambodian architecture. It also hailed two new artist-run initiatives, Sammaki and Make Maek, as building on the ancient artistic legacy of the town stretching back to Angkorean times. But at the basic level of skills it is not easy for Khmer artists to turn towards the past. With the suppression of traditional culture and killing of artists by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979, this history provides contemporary artists with little more than a backdrop or narrative against which to work, one that has been appropriated by French colonial, Khmer Rouge and contemporary governments alike.

“There isn’t any link between contemporary artists and older artists, but I want there to be a link between these two generations,” Theanly Chov, manager of Sammaki art space explains. The scission in Cambodia’s cultural history has recently been addressed by organisations such as Cambodian Living Arts through their efforts to reconnect living masters of traditional arts with young students, but this model has been most successful in reviving the performing arts.

Interestingly, I was often given the names of musicians when I asked people about their favourite Khmer artists. The New York Times article also cited a principally musical lineage of artists from Battambang, notably the 1960s singer Ros Sereysothea. I think this is less an affectation on the writer’s part than an indication of the importance of music in Cambodia, in particular the 1960s golden age of Cambodian pop that commands a nostalgic fascination to this day. But where are the artists?

There are two notable artists from Battambang who survived the Khmer Rouge regime and one of them holds the key to the Battambang art scene. Vann Nath survived in Phnom Penh’s S-21 camp by painting portraits of Pol Pot and later recorded scenes from S-21 in horrifying canvases. His name is now synonymous with a Phnom Penh-based artistic reappraisal of the Khmer Rouge period. Srey Bandol learnt to paint during the Khmer Rouge period in refugee camps on the Thai border and has taught in Battambang at the French-Cambodian art school Phare Ponleu Selpak (the Shining Light of Art) since 1994. The establishment of Phare has given hundreds of students a solid grounding in drawing and painting skills, leaving them hungry for “new techniques” when they graduate.

 Artwalk, Make Maek Gallery Artwalk, Make Maek Gallery
photo Justin Lorenzon
The focus of Phare’s visual arts program was evident at Battambang’s first art walk in February. Lights were hoisted into the air, colourful banners were posted outside shop fronts and tables were set up in the streets. Sammaki and Make Maek showed large collections of paintings and hosted performances from Phare’s circus school. Houses, shops and cafés on the main strip also set up easels to exhibit paintings by local artists.

“It is not hard to be an artist after school, but it is hard to find new techniques,” Rithy told me in his studio at Sammaki during the art walk. I often heard “new techniques” repeated with grail-like zeal. Artists do not always have computer skills, so there is not a widespread culture of looking online for new ideas. The exchange of ideas in Battambang happens face to face, with travel providing eye-opening opportunities for local artists. Robit Pen, a current student at Phare, has recently returned from an exchange in Nantes, in France. There he refined his technical skills and learned about art of the 20th century. Now he wants to make contemporary art, citing Pollock and Picasso as influences. Rithy has just returned from Japan where he was struck by the contrast between its bustling metropolises and cities seemingly abandoned after the tsunami. “Now I am busy thinking about Japan and art,” Rithy explains, “From now on I want to make big art, installations.” Rithy is part of the “second generation” of Phare graduates working in the wake of his older colleagues, the first wave from 2002, who set up the first artist-run spaces in Battambang and have been searching for new techniques for a decade now.

When artists do find a new way of making art they can meet with some resistance from the wider community. Long Loeurn, part of the first generation of Phare graduates, produces high definition photographs of paint dripping down blocks of ice. He performed his art at a pagoda in Phnom Penh during the Water Festival, when two to three million people descended on the city. Suspicious about what he was doing, police tried to stop him until the owners of the local Java café and gallery intervened. Elsewhere his mixing of colours has brought him under suspicion of witchcraft.

Without a tradition of artist-run initiatives in Battambang the organisation of Sammaki and Make Maek has not been easy. Katie Hallaran, one of the ex-pats who helps out at Sammaki, reports it is difficult to get artists to mind or clean the space and critical discussion of the artists’ own works is almost non-existent. Task sharing and finding time for open discussions are problems faced by any artist-run initiative, all the more so when you are building it yourself. There is no shortage of energy though. Mao Soviet, founder of Make Maek gallery, puts it well when he says, “I want Battambang to be the centre of art in Cambodia.” Battambang has an artistic history, but it is up to this generation to build an artistic tradition.


The art walk cited here was held in Battambang, Cambodia, February 3.

For more arts travels see the new online feature: RealTime Traveller

RealTime issue #108 April-May 2012 pg. 41

© Matthew Lorenzon; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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