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

  • Hong Kong firm done buying Coke Cambodia

    Swire Coca-Cola Ltd, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Hong Kong-listed Swire Pacific Ltd, on November 25 announced that it had completed the acquisition of The Coca-Cola Co’s bottling business in Cambodia, as part of its ambitions to expand into the Southeast Asian market. Swire Coca-Cola affirmed

  • Moody’s sets outlook rating to ‘negative’ for Cambodia

    US global rating agency Moody’s Investors Service Inc on November 15 announced that it downgraded Cambodia’s outlook from “stable” to “negative” and maintained its B2 local and foreign currency issuer ratings. “The negative outlook reflects a deteriorating external position as illustrated by the severe

  • NagaWorld union leader arrested at airport after Australia trip

    Chhim Sithar, head of the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees at NagaWorld integrated casino resort, was arrested on November 26 at Phnom Penh International Airport and placed in pre-trial detention after returning from a 12-day trip to Australia. Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge

  • Korean first lady paves way for ill boy’s surgery

    A 14-year-old boy with congenital heart disease who was lucky enough to meet with South Korean first lady Kim Keon-hee may get the chance of a lifetime and receive surgery and treatment at Asan Medical Center in Seoul, South Korea. After seeing his plight, many

  • Kingdom’s rice crowned world’s No1

    Cambodia’s Phka Rumduol jasmine variety has been crowned the World’s Best Rice for the fifth time at the TRT (The Rice Trader) World Rice Conference in Phuket, Thailand on November 17, according to leaders of the Kingdom’s apex rice industry body. Phka Rumduol

  • Ministry to 'seek justice' for officials indicted in US for 'monkey smuggling'

    The Cambodian government and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries said they will make the “utmost effort” to seek justice for a Cambodian official arrested in John F Kennedy International Airport in New York for allegedly conspiring to smuggle crab-eating macaque monkeys (Macaca fascicularis)