Discover Cambodia - - CONTENTS - Words by Paul Mil­lar Pho­tog­ra­phy by Thomas Cristo­fo­letti

Dis­cov­er­ing the thriv­ing arts hub of Bat­tam­bang


Mus­cles strain­ing be­neath the taut skin of his fore­arms, the ac­ro­bat’s body trem­bles be­neath the stark light of the big top. Bal­anced head-down atop a shift­ing tower of planks, tins and buck­ets, he bunches his pow­der-white face in con­cen­tra­tion as he strug­gles to keep his feet ram­rod straight to­ward the dis­tant sky. As the crowd stares in aching si­lence, he lifts a hand inches off the wood. Breaths we didn’t re­alise we were hold­ing slip from our lips, and the tent erupts into ap­plause.

In Cam­bo­dia’s art cap­i­tal of Bat­tam­bang in the coun­try’s north­west, the or­gan­i­sa­tion Phare Pon­leu Sel­pak – “The Bright­ness of the Arts” – has long been a prov­ing ground for the artists who have made the city fa­mous for its bo­hemian em­brace of all things artis­tic. Born in the refugee camps in Thai­land, what started as a way for the ex­iled chil­dren of Cam­bo­dia to use art to cope with the trauma of a coun­try tear­ing it­self apart has ex­panded into a sprawl­ing school ded­i­cated to teach­ing Cam­bo­dia’s dis­en­fran­chised youth the skills in per­for- mance, fine arts and mu­sic that can of­fer them a life be­yond their ru­ral roots.

Walk­ing be­neath the pa­per lan­terns of the school’s grounds at twi­light, vis­i­tors can take in gal­leries dis­play­ing the art­work of stu­dents past and present. Through­out the week, stu­dents fo­cus­ing on per­form­ing arts take to the big top on cam­pus to per­form for lo­cals and tourists alike. Al­though not as polished as the pro­fes­sion­als on dis­play in Phare Pon­leu Sel­pak’s other big top in Siem Reap, the shows rank among the best you can see in Cam­bo­dia, as stu­dents who have stud­ied their craft since they were chil­dren cre­ate and per­form a num­ber of acts as grip­ping as they are surreal.

Stu­dents who have stud­ied their craft since they were chil­dren per­form acts as grip­ping as they are surreal

Phat Sreyleak, a stu­dent con­tor­tion­ist at the school, told Dis­cover be­fore the night’s per­for­mance that her de­sire to join the cir­cus was in­sep­a­ra­ble from her ad­mi­ra­tion of those who had come be­fore her. “When I look at the older generation, I feel very proud of their per­for­mance,” she said.

That this in­cred­i­ble in­sti­tu­tion co­ex­ists with the nexus of Cam­bo­dia’s art scene is no co­in­ci­dence: it is from the class­rooms of Phare Pon­leu Sel­pak that a new generation of Kh­mer artists have ce­mented the city’s rep­u­ta­tion as a hub of per­form­ing arts and con­stantly evolv­ing gal­leries.

A short tuk tuk ride from the city cen­tre takes vis­i­tors down a green gar­den lane to Rom­cheik 5, the most strik­ing of Bat­tam­bang’s scat­tered gal­leries and art spa­ces. A sanc­tu­ary of raw mod­ern and sur­re­al­ist art, it houses the paint­ings and sculp­tures of a group of lo­cal artists liv­ing and work­ing on the premises un­der the aus­pices of their French pa­tron. From mu­ti­lated wooden fetishes stud­ded St Se­bas­tian-like with six-inch nails, to ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist works flayed into the can­vas, Rom­cheik 5 con­tains some of the best con­tem­po­rary art Cam­bo­dia has pro­duced.

Climb­ing a twist­ing steel stair­case to the top floor of this three-storey gallery re­veals a space open to the el­e­ments save for a steel mar­quee, its bare metal struts fram­ing mot­ley works of con­tem­po­rary Cam­bo­dian art. Peer­ing over the con­crete edge brings a vista of rusted tin roofs and sav­age green over­growth shel­ter­ing the odd de­spon­dent cow. As the gar­bled cries of roosters fil­ter through the white­washed brick walls of the gallery, the tor­tured faces trapped be­neath the weight of their frames seem al­most to move.

Flanked by gar­ish por­traits of hu­man mis­ery, res­i­dent artist Mil Chankrim de­scribed his paint­ings as a way to reflect on the hard­ships of his child­hood. “I want to speak about my own story,” he said.

Forced into child labour after cross­ing the bor­der to Thai­land at 13, Chankrim has used his art­work – skinned foetal fig­ures that owe as much to the as­cetic

mor­ti­fi­ca­tion of Bud­dhist sculp­ture as they do the works of Egon Schiele – to force view­ers to con­front the re­al­ity of the mod­ern-day slave trade.

For a glimpse of those up-and-com­ing artists who came to their craft by other paths, Maek Make Art Space near the city cen­tre – re­cently re­opened and un­der new man­age­ment – gives as­pir­ing Cam­bo­dian artists with­out for­mal train­ing a chance to hone and dis­play their vi­sions of Cam­bo­dian so­ci­ety. On the up­per floor of a lo­cal crafts shop, the gallery’s blunt black walls are stud­ded with the pho­tog­ra­phy of lo­cal artists, shim­mer­ing as the white lights bend be­neath a gut­ter­ing ceil­ing fan.

One such pho­tog­ra­pher is Phoe­ung Visal. His first ex­hi­bi­tion, Sur­viv­ing in Bat­tam­bang, de­tails the daily strug­gle of do­mes­tic life for those who have grown up in the shadow of war.

A new generation of artists have ce­mented the city’s rep­u­ta­tion as a hub of per­form­ing arts and gal­leries

“After the war, we are liv­ing in very hard con­di­tions – peo­ple have to find dif­fer­ent ways to sur­vive them­selves,” he said. “[There are] many, many poor peo­ple in the coun­try­side – it’s very hard to sur­vive here – they don’t know how to sell their life.”

Still crawl­ing with the rem­nants of the Kh­mer Rouge un­til the fi­nal end of hos­til­i­ties in 1996, Bat­tam­bang has risen from decades of devastation partly through the art of those still scarred by its mem­ory.

“Even my­self, I lived in very hard con­di­tions when I was a child,” Visal said. “I think that through the im­age, through the photo, we can change peo­ple’s think­ing.”

A re­cent re­birth in Bat­tam­bang’s mer­cu­rial gallery scene, Maek Make’s fine col­lec­tion of young tal­ent and cen­tral lo­ca­tion make it an ob­vi­ous stop on any art tour of the city.

Across the street, Bat­tam­bang’s bustling art scene spills out, as it does in so many of the city’s cafés, from Lo­tus Bar and Gallery. A pop­u­lar hang­out for painters and print­mak­ers alike, Lo­tus has an as­sured bo­hemian feel found only too rarely out­side Cam­bo­dia’s cap­i­tal, Ph­nom Penh. Works by lo­cal and for­eign artists burn bright against the bare brick walls: Chov Teanly’s ema­ci­ated Bud­dhas in pho­to­re­al­ist re­lief fold lo­tus-like be­hind bar­bells and Nike sportswear – cen­turies of as­cetic de­vo­tion caught in a silent strug­gle with creep­ing con­sumer cul­ture. The alien gaze of an ap­sara slashed in yel­lows and blacks into a life­less slab of drift­wood by Bo Rithy tears the cen­turiesold im­age of the sa­cred dancer from its static bas­re­liefs of the lost Kh­mer Em­pire and into the worn de­tri­tus of its frac­tured suc­ces­sors. Re­cently re­opened, the gallery of­fers a pared-back menu with a mix­ture of veg­e­tar­ian dishes per­fect for an af­ter­noon break be­tween gal­leries.

Around the cor­ner, nes­tled in the crook of an L-shaped street off the main strip, Kinyei Café’s bal­cony peers through hang­ing pot plants at a sleepy med­ley of colo­nial and tra­di­tional Kh­mer ar­chi­tec­ture char­ac­ter­is­tic of Cam­bo­dia’s sec­ond-largest city. In­doors, wo­ven wicker couches clus­tered around a ta­ble whorled with old brush­strokes, as well as the ubiq­ui­tous art on the walls, add to an at­mos­phere more stu­dio than shop. Ideal for break­fast or a quick cof­fee, early birds pass­ing by the cen­tral Psar Nat mar­ket on their way to Kinyei may catch the strains of chant­ing monks as they re­ceive of­fer­ings on their daily alms round.

It is de­vo­tion, from the teenage troupers balanc­ing one-handed be­neath the big top to the artists carv­ing their coun­try’s grief onto a can­vas, that lies at Bat­tam­bang’s heart – a fu­sion of Cam­bo­dia’s colo­nial legacy with a new generation un­afraid of fac­ing its past. Strik­ing a bal­ance be­tween an­guish and art, it is th­ese as­cen­dant artists that have built for them­selves a city where, un­der the fix­ated eyes of the au­di­ence, they raise their hands by inches.

Bat­tam­bang has risen from decades of devastation partly through the art of those scarred by its mem­ory

Art at­tack: (clock­wise from top left) works by lo­cal artist Chov Teanly on dis­play at Lo­tus Bar & Gallery; Rom­cheik 5 artist-in-res­i­dence Mil Chankrim; paint­ings and sculp­tures by Bor Hak

Paint­ing pain: Bat­tam­bang's Rom­cheik 5 art space is a haven for artists draw­ing on the despair and lone­li­ness of their early lives

Top form: stu­dent per­form­ers from Bat­tam­bang's Phare Pon­leu Sel­pak show­case their skills in the big top

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