Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Battambang gallery takes its maiden voyage



Battambang gallery takes its maiden voyage

The main room in Sangker Gallery is primarily dedicated to painting, with other rooms showing photography and graphic design inspired by the river.
The main room in Sangker Gallery is primarily dedicated to painting, with other rooms showing photography and graphic design inspired by the river. Charlotte Pert

Battambang gallery takes its maiden voyage

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.

Pen Robit in the gallery.
Pen Robit in the gallery. Charlotte Pert

“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.

Tes Vannorng’s painting is mounted on lace.
Tes Vannorng’s painting is mounted on lace. Charlotte Pert

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.

Bo Hak’s striking sculpture is carved from wood.
Bo Hak’s striking sculpture is carved from wood. Charlotte Pert

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.

MOST VIEWED

  • Prince Norodom Ranariddh passes away at 77

    Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the second son of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and former First Prime Minister of Cambodia, has passed away in France at the age of 77. “Samdech Krom Preah Norodom Ranariddh has passed away this morning in France just after 9am Paris-time,”

  • General’s gun smuggling ring busted

    The Military Police sent six military officers to court on November 22 to face prosecution for possession of 105 illegal rifles and arms smuggling, while investigators say they are still hunting down additional accomplices. Sao Sokha, deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces and commander of

  • Rise in planned flights lifts travel hopes

    Six airlines have applied to resume flights in December, while two others have put in for additional flights and routes, according to State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA) head Mao Havannall on November 29. These account for 43 new weekly domestic and international flights in December, up 16

  • Cambodia, Thailand to discuss border reopening

    Cambodian authorities from provinces along the Cambodia-Thailand border will meet with Thai counterparts to discuss reopening border checkpoints to facilitate travel, transfer of products and cross-border trade between the two countries. Banteay Meanchey provincial deputy governor Ly Sary said on November 22 that the provincial administration

  • More Cambodians studying in US

    The number of Cambodian students studying at US colleges and universities in 2020-21 increased by 14.3 per cent over the previous year despite the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a recent US government report. The 2021 Open Doors report on International Educational Exchange showed that 848 Cambodian students studied

  • Hun Sen: Manet to be candidate for prime minister

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has reaffirmed that his oldest son Hun Manet will be his successor as Prime Minister if he is elected. Speaking during the inauguration of a new sewage treatment facility in Preah Sihanouk province on December 2, Hun Sen said Manet will be