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Battambang’s claim to be Kingdom’s new art capital

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Bikes festooned with art were cycled through Battambang for the inaugural Angkor Art Explo. Photo by: JOEL GERSHON

Enthusiasm for the nascent art scene in Battambang has reached a new high, after local artists launched the first official arts festival in Cambodia’s second biggest city this past weekend.

The opening attracted hundreds of locals and foreigners, who gathered along the river near the central market and watched colours drip down and melt away as local artists painted on large blocks of ice (and people’s bodies), while DJs spun tunes, bands played traditional music with modern twists, and a local breakdance crew popped and locked into the night.

It may be a long time before Battambang can be referred to as Cambodia’s Florence or SoHo, but residents are striving to put it on the art map.

The festivities in Battambang were part of the first ever “Angkor Art Explo.” The “Explo”, which is short for explosion or exploration, is putting the spotlight on Battambang’s creative community, which has been trying to reclaim its mantle of being the country’s artistic capital, once sung about by the so-called King of Khmer Music, Sinn Sisamouth, whose father worked in Battambang as a prison warden.

Two gallery owners based in Siem Reap spearheaded the idea for the Explo after collaborating on a successful art show last February. Canadian David Ramjattan – aka Jam – who owns the art gallery-cum-café Art Deli, and Loven Ramos, the Filipino owner of the boutique hotel/gallery Hotel 1961, brainstormed methods to promote the new wave of Khmer art.

“Most of the creative people in Cambodia are from Battambang,” Ramos said. “It is a youth-oriented place, and the young artists are very enthusiastic and basically unadulterated by the outside world. It has a laid-back atmosphere, but there is an artistic spirit that is stimulating the creativity and a movement is developing.”

Battambang artists agree that the heart of the scene is the Phare Ponleu Selpak, a Cambodian NGO which was founded in 1994 to develop the arts amongst local youth in Battambang. In addition to its renowned circus, Phare also runs an art school and gallery, and many of its graduates are establishing themselves as professional artists.

The Battambang art movement took a big step forward a few months ago when Jam, Swallow and other local collaborators opened Sammaki – at the time the only gallery in Battambang besides the one at Phare.

In addition to featuring art, Sammaki hosts workshops, tea parties, and is maintaining Bo Rithy as an artist-in-residence. Soon after Sammaki opened, another gallery down the street, Make Maek, opened its doors, founded by two of the most prominent Battambang artists, Soviet Mao, and his artist wife Phin Sophorn, who originally got their start as art students at Phare.

Kat Eng, a Khmer-American artist who is a co-director at Make Maek, came to Cambodia less than a year ago to explore her roots, and began working at Phare as an art teacher, where she got swept up in driving the developing art scene.

“Khmer people are ready but they need a catalyst,” she said. “I can envision the streets of Battambang filled with cafés and galleries. Maybe in five years – maybe it could happen in two.”

She said that there are several dozen viable artists who have moved beyond depicting the well-worn images of temples, rice fields or symbols of Buddhism, and now express themselves with original and personal styles.

Mao said that some of his recent work is inspired by the controversy surrounding Beong Kok Lake in Phnom Penh, as well as the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. Another local artist, Phok “B” Sopheap, said that he is mostly inspired by the death of his parents.

The Battambang art community is in its beginning stages, but according to Jam, international collectors have dropped into the galleries to buy works that are mostly priced in the three or four-digit dollar range – no small price for work by up-and-coming Khmer artists. Several paintings were sold at the festival to foreigners, according to festival director Tiani Chillemi.

Chillemi added that the organisers are committed to another, bigger festival next year.

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