The death of young Battambang painter, Kem San, sent ripples through the town’s art community last June. The roads had been slippery and wet, and the motorbike he had been riding had spiralled out of control, throwing San from his seat. His friends felt shock, but not disbelief. In a country with one of the highest road-death tolls in the region, most had already experienced the tragic reality of Cambodia’s dangerous roads.
Chhoeun Vandy was left distressed. San was a graduate of the established Phare Ponleu Selpak art school, where Vandy still studies, and just two weeks after his death, they were due to hold a joint exhibition at Battambang’s Sammaki gallery.
In a sad twist of fate, at a memorial to their friend, the art community gathered at the gallery around one of San’s last paintings – a vivid portrait of an audience clustered around the artist’s canvas, it was called My Dream.
“We were close. I was devastated,” said Vandy, speaking at the exhibition of their work more than a month after the accident.
“He was a bit older than me, he was a bit of a mentor and he shared his life experiences. He was very talented, energetic, and enthusiastic. He also performed music and acted in plays… I am so sorry.”
The softly spoken 22-year-old said in the wake of his friend’s death, he’d channelled his grief into his own painting – with a rich colour palette, he feverishly mixed colours, and played with light, shade, textures and subtleties. He was “exploring his emotions,” he said. Like many others, he was unable to afford high quality materials, so he smeared and splashed oil and acrylic paint with his hands.
It wasn’t the first time Vandy had searched for answers through his art. Growing up in a family of 11 amid a patchwork of rice fields and unruly vegetable gardens close to Phare’s school, he’d wistfully watch art students sketch the farming landscape at work each day.
“But it was before then – even from the age of five or six I had wanted to draw – my aunt and mother were tailors and sketched, they taught me about perspective, human form and figures, colours and shape.
“I lived so close to Phare but never really realised I could go there, so I started quite late, at 15 and part time.
“I look to my childhood and to life moments, subtle or big moments that have an impact and I reflect and think how I can direct those feelings.”
The artist’s latest collection, Life and Hope, on show at Sammaki Gallery in Battambang, is striking for its delicate and precise use of colour. While the five paintings as a whole are not quite cohesive, three strong pieces demonstrate a remarkable attention to depth, shadow and the illusion of light and movement.
In one, titled Past, a man sits on a chair, eyes burning into the distance. Glowing with rich hues of amber, gold, fiery reds and chartreuse greens, it’s a haunting painting – perhaps even more so because of its subject matter: bonded labour and trafficking
“Something really nagged at me to paint this… I felt warm tones. This is my friend who disappeared a long time ago. We were only about 15, and he went to Thailand to work, like so many people from Battambang and other parts of the country do. He was never seen again and he never wanted to go there in the first place. I want to know where he is, what life has he had, is he ok? He’s a ghost, perhaps. It’s a response to that.”
Many young Cambodians migrate from Battambang to Thailand for work, vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation. It’s an issue close to many Battambang artists’ hearts: painters Bo Hak and Mil Chankrim were trafficked to Thailand.
Three in the exhibition are vibrant self portraits – the artist sought a deeper understanding of himself. “I got lost. I painted myself to get a better view. Painting for me is something I must do to find answers.
“It’s about finding something beautiful, something deeper to communicate with.”
In Patient, perhaps Vandy’s best work, rich and varied hues of turquoise, emerald and deeper greens surround a figure - Vandy - gripping a bucket running for the horizon, the shading and light creating space and dimension.
“I just wanted to recreate the colours I saw – the green of the fields, the blues of the ponds and puddles of water.
“I never minded working the farm. I told myself wait, be patient. I often feel conflicted about going back to that life or not…the duty to help the family. It was at that time a sense of peaceful waiting, of patience.”
Vandy said he was eager to investigate new mediums and had begun work on installations and sculptures using natural materials.
“Art is personal. If there is any material unique and individual to Battambang it is wood – the legend of Battambang is based on this [‘Battambang’ can be translated to ‘disappearing stick’ – it harks from the legend of a magical wooden baton wielded by ruler Ta Dambang that earnt him absolute power. A large statue of Ta Dambang and the stick herald the entrance to the town from Phnom Penh].To transform that into art that reflects issues today is my goal.”
Darren Swallow, one of Sammaki’s founders, said Vandy’s work excited him: “I think he has really connected here to something inside.”
While a greater supply of artists and exhibitions was certainly needed, it was hard for many Battambang artists to create bodies of work with limited finances and sub-standard supplies, he said.
But that may be about to change, with a new partnership between Sammaki and the Cambodian Childrens Trust (CCT) announced last month.
Previously an artist run space, Sammaki had been on the verge of collapsing, but with the high profile NGO injecting resources and financing, they had “received a lifeline”, Swallow said.
“The fact is that this was set up as a community art space so it has to remain that way and it will.”
Tara Winkler, CCT’s founder, said the gallery would be renovated, a resource library built, a residency program set up (with artists, such as Australian painter and Archibald and Dobel finalist Craig Waddell working with resident artists) and regular trips to Thailand for supplies undertaken.
“It’s so frustrating for them to see that work put into art and have the canvas crack, or having to use sub-standard thinners…so having the access to the materials through these regular trips to Bangkok will be beneficial,” she said.
The space would be bolstered with more staff and more group exhibitions. The gallery would make a commission from works sold, which would be funnelled back into an account for future festivals and exhibitions, she said
“The art scene is still nascent here but the pressure is mounting and it’s about to explode,” a buoyant Swallow added.