Battambang artist Chea Sereyroth’s new exhibition Quest weaves together the stories of people who have to move or migrate to survive.

The solo exhibition was organised by Sa Sa Art Projects in partnership with FT gallery at The Factory Phnom Penh and is on display at Air Gallery from April 27-May 28.

On display are 33 paintings on traditional woven romjek mats with images of migrants – older, younger, men and women. Some are walking with bulky bundles of clothes and everything else they own. Many have bitter expressions on their faces. Another scene depicted is a boy opening soup pot only to find it empty, pointing to what often motivates migrants to head elsewhere – basic survival.

Sereyroth made both the paintings and the mats. He learned the traditional romjek weaving method – a practice that is slowly disappearing – and spent the past two years of the pandemic weaving and painting the mats using acrylic paints, sawdust and dirt.

Patrons view Sereyroth’s exhibition at Air Gallery in The Factory Phnom Penh building. Hong Menea

His painted mats narrate scenes that are typical of the hard lives migrants lead – evictions, uncertain journeys, hunger, homelessness and hard work.

Quest reflects my commitment to locally conscious practices and the amplification of voices from vulnerable populations. While the work is rooted in the local experience of the impact of Covid-19, they also speak to both historical and current regional and global crises that have forced various forms of migration,” the 32-year-old artist tells The Post.

He says that he has relatives that have had to migrate to neighbouring countries such as Thailand to look for work. Sereyroth himself currently owns a home near a stream which is designated as government land and will be forced to move as well when the time comes.

Moving is never an easy task for Cambodians because they tend to be deeply attached to their hometowns and the prospect of leaving friends and family behind and uprooting their children is frightening. Added to their list of woes are the costs associated with employment brokers and risking danger crossing the border illegally.

“I started working on the series by the end of 2019 and it took me two years and something to finish all of them – calculating from the time I spent learning how to weave mats. This is not, in fact, the first time I’ve used mats for art, but I bought those from other people,” he says.

Sereyroth says he wants to dedicate these paintings to all migrants who are struggling so that they know that people understand the difficulties they face and to the villagers who taught him how to weave his own mats – many of whom have migrant family members or are facing similar challenges.

“I went to Kampong Chhnang province to learn how to weave from the villagers there. I started by following them into the forest to harvest romjek plants and went step-by-step with the weaving, turning the plants into a mat and using that as my canvas,” he says.

Sereyroth notes that he often uses mud and sawdust in his artwork and that most of it isn’t abstract or conceptual – the things he depicts are what they appear to be in a direct and simple way.

“For these paintings I used mud taken from termite mounds and I crush it and mix it with water and glue and then use acrylic paints as well as sawdust to complete each piece. The process is quite time consuming both with the weaving and making the paints and it took a long time to finish this series,” says the artist.

Sereyroth’s latest solo exhibition Quest runs from April 27 to May 28. Hong Menea

While making the 33 paintings during the pandemic, he said it was really tough to stay positive and productive with everything shut down and no galleries showing anyone’s work but he kept working on the series and now finally he’s been rewarded for his efforts with a solo exhibition.

Sereyroth studied painting at Phare Ponleu Selpak beginning in 2005. In 2008, he attended a workshop with the artists Sera Ing and Vann Nath titled the Memory of the Khmer Rouge Regime in Cambodia, led by Soko Phay-Vakalis at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh.

After graduating from Battambang Institute of Technology (BIT) in 2012, he began working as a graphic designer and artist in the Sonleuk Thmey Studio at Phare Ponleu Selpak. In 2013, he became a graphic design teacher at Phare Ponleu Selpak and he has participated in many art exhibitions.

In 2014, he participated in SPOT ART, Southeast Asia’s only international art festival for artists under 30 years old in Singapore. The same year, he had the solo exhibition Disaster in Phnom Penh’s Romeet Gallery.

“Most of my solo exhibitions are done locally but I’ve done group exhibitions internationally in France, Singapore and Hong Kong,” Sereyroth says.

In 2019, he did the solo exhibition Ricefield Mirage which was shown at Battambang’s Sangker Gallery and at Sa Sa Art Projects in Phnom Penh.

Sereyroth and his painting Wake Up on April 28. He says he hopes his art can help bring about positive change in society. SUPPLIED

“I began to take painting seriously in 2018 when I reduced my hours working as a teacher and started giving my full attention to producing artwork through painting. And I really hope I can do more art in different forms in the future. I have done a little sculpting in the past but a lot of it also depends on the topic we are going to talk about. I usually do contemporary political themes that relate to environmental, social and citizen issues,” he says.

As to whether his two young children will take after their father, he says that even now whenever he sits down and paints they will also get out their materials and paint.

“My son is only eight and my daughter is two and a half years old, so it’s too early for me to say if they have the same interests that I have or if they will want what I want, but one thing I can say for sure is that I won’t force them to follow in my footsteps. They are the masters of their own lives,” he says.

He says he hopes that more people will come to have a better understanding of the arts, which have the potential to change society into a better place and increase its prosperity.

“I believe each individual is blessed with artistic ability – whether it’s more or less – and I wish people understood the importance of using what they have to inspire Khmer people and show other nations that we are not less than they are and we are capable of doing what they do. Because art really has a huge impact on society that could lead us to a brighter future and better nation and help us to embrace our own identity,” Sereyroth says.