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Battambang artists in focus

One might be forgiven for missing the link between Egyptian mummies and the people of Cambodia. But that is precisely what artist and sculptor Srey Bandaul is trying to establish in his work Mummy 2013 – a sculpture of a figure, with mismatched features and body parts, wrapped in bandages.

Bandaul, 41, said that whereas mummies in Egypt were high-ranking leaders wrapped in bandages so as not to decay, his mummies depict the opposite: regular Cambodians whose lives aren’t given value.

Painter Sin Rithy channels Picasso in "The Blue Portrait". The piece will go on display tonight as part of the "Made in Battambang" exhibition
Painter Sin Rithy channels Picasso in "The Blue Portrait". The piece will go on display tonight as part of the "Made in Battambang" exhibition. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“We see many traffic accidents happen every day in Cambodia, and they kill many people, but they don’t give value to their dead bodies. I think that people don’t love each other, lose honesty, lose solidarity and kill each other.”

He continued: “If you look at my sculpture, I have placed the human body in the wrong order. For example, the left hand was placed where the right hand should be on the body. It means that nowadays in Cambodian society, people don’t give value to one another. It seems like they discriminate each other, that the poor are still poor, and the rich are still rich.”

Bandaul’s Mummy 2013 is one of the works that will be displayed as part of Made in Battambang, an art exhibition that opens at Phnom Penh’s Institut Français this evening. The exhibition, with works from 26 artists, showcases the scope of artwork that the city has to offer.

Bandaul is the co-founder and director of Phare Ponleu Selpak art school in Battambang. He said that when he started teaching there, only 10 students were enrolled. It’s now the school’s mission to turn Battambang into a well-known cultural and artistic centre, he said, adding: “We were inspired on a visit to New York. We realised New York could become an artistic and cultural centre – why not Battambang in Cambodia?”

Alain Troulet, who curated the exhibition, said that although there are several political messages in the artworks displayed – one triptych, by Roeun Sokhom, portrays collages of activists Chun Wutty, Tep Vanny and Chea Vichea – the only official theme is that all the artworks were made in Battambang.

So why is Battambang home to such artistic talent? According to Troulet, it’s a tradition that spans back to the Angkorian era. He said: “Even in Angkorian times, and before the Khmer Rouge, it was the same thing. We had a rebirth of this tradition 10 years ago, and it’s increased.”

Troulet said that the exhibition was partly organised as a reaction to last year’s Seasons of Cambodia Festival, which many people felt exclusively focused on the work of artists from Phnom Penh. He said: “For us in Battambang, this was a very big professional mistake made by the direction of the show, because the Seasons of Cambodia became Seasons of Phnom Penh only.”

He continued: “Everyone was upset in Battambang, so we said, ‘OK, let’s create our own show.’”

The organiser of Seasons of Cambodia, Erin Gleeson, could not be reached for comment, though she told the Post last year that she stood by the curatorial process, saying that “delegations” of these institutions had travelled around Cambodia throughout the process.

Troulet, who himself used to direct the Institut Français, added that the exhibition, 80 per cent of whose artists are under 30 years old, reflects a revival in Cambodia’s art scene. “The artists are quite fresh, they don’t have so many influences to look back to,” he said. “Most of their work is from the heart, from the stomach. That’s what makes this exhibition interesting.”

Made in Battambang will open this evening at 6:30pm at the Institut Francais and will continue until March 15. Entry is free, but entrants are encouraged to buy a program for $3, which will contribute to the exhibition.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VANDY MUONG

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