A bastion of contemporary art and culture, Battambang produced some of Cambodia’s finest artists of the 20th century. Now, a new generation is grappling with their nation’s past through performance, paint and photography
Words by Paul Millar Photography by Thomas Cristofoletti
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 performance, 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.
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.
“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 centuries-old image of the sacred dancer from its static bas-reliefs 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.