Sangker Gallery’s inaugural show is inspired by the river that gave the gallery its name
A few months back, Mok Rotha was pitching around for an exciting way to inaugurate his new gallery. The three-room space on a quiet corner of Street 1.5 was already active as Studio Art Battambang – a place for artists, mainly graduates of local art school Phare Ponleu Selpak, to meet and work.
But to transition from makeshift studio to exhibition space, he needed to find a cohesive thread to unite the eclectic mix of painters, sculptors, photographers and graphic designers whose work he wanted to display.
The answer arrived by boat – more precisely it came from Battambang’s Sangker river, and the potent memories that the waterway stirred up for Rotha. Originally from Svay Rieng province, he was relocated to Battambang under the Khmer Rouge and was there in 1979 when Vietnamese forces arrived.
“One day, I went out with my mum and my aunts in a boat to catch fish near the village Bak Prea,” he says.
“Several years later, after having left for France [where Rotha lived from 1983 to 2001], I came to Battambang from Siem Reap by boat, and all those memories of childhood came back – the smells, the noises, the countryside.”
With the help of his friend, the photographer Kim Hak, Rotha rented a boat and invited 18 artists to take a two-day trip down the river. The artists chatted and took in the scenery, making sketches and jotting down ideas. At night, they slept in the village where Rotha had caught fish as a child. When they returned, each artist used the experience to create a piece for the inaugural show, aptly titled Sangker Memories.
“We slept, ate and discussed ideas, together,” says Pen Robit, a painter who participated in the voyage. “All the artists had their own ideas but we shared with each other.”
Robit says that despite the abstract nature of his paintings – large canvases layered with splashes of bright colour – his work was made in response to the trip’s human encounters. “I observed that the life of people on the river was different from the life of people on land because they face more challenges,” he says.
He points to his painting, and explains how the villagers’ struggle is symbolised by the way the background of light blue is being submerged by thick black paint.
Using the trip as a common jumping off point, combined with the fact that almost all the artists trained at arts school Phare Ponleu Selpak, could have produced uniformity among the works on show.
But although Rotha agrees that it’s possible to identify a technical commonality – “the Phare stream” as he puts it – the variety is striking.
Some found inspiration in the social issues they encountered, such as Kolab Koeurm’s still life of a small fish on a plate with four forks – a reference to how overfishing is straining the river dwellers’ resources. Other works imagine the river as a landscape of surreal possibilities, such as Vila Hiek’s vibrant graphic image of flying fish and floating stars.
In some works, the innovation is technical. Tes Vannorng’s painting of a small floating boat is a straightforward depiction of riverside idyll, but painted onto a canvas stretched with lace. Vannorng chose the form as a way of highlighting gender inequality. “Since people don’t give much value to women in this country, I linked my painting to elevating women’s identity,” she says.
Kim Hak explains that he and Rotha took a hands-off approach in their role as mentors on the trip in order to let this variety flourish. “Many artists, when we look at their work, we can recognise who they are even though they’re painting the same thing,” he says.
Buoyed by the success of their maiden voyage, Rotha and Hak have already made plans for future shows to be grouped around similar excursions. Next year, the artists will be travelling to Ratanakkiri. “I want to facilitate an exchange with the ethnic minorities there who have their own artistic style,” Rotha explains.
Perhaps it’s the sense of common purpose created by the group outing, or something in the water that flows through the city, but it’s hard not to be struck by the sense of community that surrounds the nascent space.
Visiting the gallery a few days before the opening, there’s a revolving cast of artists and their friends popping in to help hang pictures, clean out junk or just to sit on the pavement outside and chat.
“I think it stems from the fact all these artists grew up together,” Rotha explains. “Everyone pitches in and builds something collectively.”
Sangker Memories is showing at Sangker Gallery, #47-14 Group 10, Street 1.5, Battambang.