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In his exhibition, I Want to Get Married, opening tonight at Java, Battambang artist Srey Bandaul recreates famous paintings such as Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory using Cambodian settings and features. Photo supplied
In his exhibition, I Want to Get Married, opening tonight at Java, Battambang artist Srey Bandaul recreates famous paintings such as Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory using Cambodian settings and features. Photo supplied

Exhibit explores injustice in Kingdom

Renowned Battambang artist Srey Bandaul’s newest exhibition – opening tonight at Java Café and Gallery – parodies familiar European works of art in a critique of Cambodia’s past and present, and extends the conversation in performance.

The multimedia exhibition, I Want to Get Married, features seven of Bandaul’s pencil drawings, as well as a video and a live performance at the opening. The drawings are fresh takes on European masters’ work from the 19th and 20th centuries, from Edvard Munch to Claude Monet.

“I wanted to transform it to the Cambodian context, keeping the same composition,” Bandaul said yesterday. “This influence from the West gives the opportunity for discussion.” The exhibition’s title, he explained, is a reference to this discussion, using marriage as a metaphor for conversation and compromise.

From afar, the drawings might appear as mere replications. “People that are at all familiar with European modern art will immediately recognise them,” said Dana Langlois, curator and director of JavaArts. But a closer look reveals the works are filled with Bandaul’s rich symbolism – all distinctly Cambodian.

One drawing confronts notions of environmental destruction and dwindling time, placing the surrealism of Salvador Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory in Prey Lang Forest. In another, Independence Monument and Vattanac Capital Tower rise up against Van Gogh’s frenetic Starry Night skyline. Cambodian women appear as Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Foreign influence is a theme in Bandaul’s art: he’s explored the tension between Cambodian traditional culture and East Asian materials and ideas in previous work. In I Want to Get Married, he takes the notion a step further back in time, focusing on the importance of European ideas of art, even in Cambodia – “cultural colonialism”, he calls it. Yesterday, he highlighted the early influence of George Groslier, the founder of the Royal University of Fine Arts.

Bandaul himself was first a student of European art, albeit in an unconventional classroom. He studied under the French artist Veronique Decrop in the Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand, and was one of the founding artists of Battambang’s contemporary Phare Ponleu Selpak school in 1994. He remains a teacher there.

The video installation, called Site 2, first appeared at the now-defunct Romeet Gallery in 2014. It shows Bandaul placing a krama, a mosquito net and a sarong – a symbol of rural poverty and injustice, he said, and a recurring image in his work – in a military bullet box.

Tonight, in a continuation of the work, Bandaul will remove the items and wrap the sarong around himself in a performance with four other Cambodian artists. “Mostly, the problem in Cambodia is for the poorest community – their weakness against power,” he explained.

The artist hopes that his work prompts an examination of such injustice that it continues beyond the scope of the exhibition. “Discussion is important”, Bandaul said. “It is not just to make something aesthetic and put it on the wall.”

I Want to Get Married opens tonight at Java Café and Gallery, #56 Sihanouk Boulevard, at 6:30pm. Bandaul’s performance begins at 7pm. The exhibition runs through June 30.

A previous version of this article stated that the founder of the Royal University of Fine Arts is Jacques Grolier. In fact, it is George Groslier.
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