The recently reopened Lotus Gallery, located on Battambang’s Street 2.5 near Phsar Nath Market, doesn’t look much different from the space that owner Darren Swallow temporarily closed six months ago.
The three-storey converted shophouse still has an airy feel and plenty of wall space, but there’s been a shift in concept, he says – one that could be indicative of fracturing support for and from the independent arts community in Battambang, once considered to be Cambodia’s cultural capital.
To start, there’s no plan for regularly rotating exhibitions.
“Before, it was quite difficult to keep up the quality of the work,” he says. “What tends to happen [in Battambang] is you get one or two good pieces and then some filler. And there are only a few artists I know who can fill an exhibition with good-quality work. So for now, I’ll focus on quality over quantity.”
For the first long-term exhibition, which opened last month with the gallery itself, the curator has chosen a couple of pieces by British artist Nicolas Grey and a handful by Swallow’s wife, the painter and sculptor Khchao Touch, who was born in Battambang and trained and later taught at Phare Ponleu Selpak.
Most of her works are incredibly detailed: earlier oil paintings on display feature tiny strokes made with a bamboo tip; her intricate watercolours focus on exploring the natural elements and female forms. Touch is inspired by flowers in particular, and some of her more minimalist works resemble a Khmer take on American artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
“They stand in the sun all day, and then they die in the ground,” Touch says. “I do my paintings to remind myself to try to find the freedom to be alive. I want my daughter to be free like that.”
For a few years, Touch – once labelled one of Cambodia’s “leading women artists” – has been on something of a hiatus. Much of her work completed over the past year has emerged from the family’s experience with the couple’s daughter, who was receiving medical treatment in Bangkok. Touch is bright-eyed, and asks a lot of questions – many of which end up as titles for her works (Where Are We Going?, for example, a family portrait).
Before stepping out of Battambang, Swallow was a co-founder of Sammaki Gallery, which closed in March after nearly five years. (He opened Lotus Gallery as a “small, funky arts venue” in 2013.) Sammaki was a bold experiment in an uncertain field: a space that after last year operated with no private funding, and where sometimes inexperienced artists took full creative control of their exhibitions.
“Once I had to leave for Bangkok, nobody tried to find funds or anything. Once the money ran out, they had to close,” Swallow says. “The idea was always that artists would take the initiative, find funding and run it as their own space – it never really happened.”
That’s not to say the community is in decline. Two shining spots include Sangker Gallery, which – unlike Sammaki – is privately funded, and the Romcheik 5 gallery, which displays the works of the eponymous collective whose members live in an artists’ commune outside town and produce a prodigious amount of original work.
But for now, Lotus Gallery will stick to its slow approach, as well as a café downstairs focused on health and vitality. “It’s something different for Battambang anyway,” Swallow says.
Upstairs in the gallery, Touch pulls out a piece she’s been working on for two months. It features a grand flower, tendrils carefully sketched out in every direction.
“When I paint this painting, I don’t know when to finish,” she says, laughing. “It needs a little bit of blue. With blue, there is freedom. I need to find a little bit of freedom in here.”
Lotus Gallery is located at #53 Street 2.5 in Battambang.