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An arts dynamo born in Site Two Refugee Camp

Artist Srey Bandual, one of the founders of Phare Ponleu Selpak, with the new book produced by the organisation to celebrate its 20th anniversary
Artist Srey Bandual, one of the founders of Phare Ponleu Selpak, with the new book produced by the organisation to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Charlotte Pert

An arts dynamo born in Site Two Refugee Camp

Art education organisation Phare Ponleu Selpak will celebrate its 20th birthday tonight with the launch of an anniversary book.

20 Years, 20 Portraits profiles members of the Phare Ponleu Selpak community, from its original founders to newcomers.

Phare Ponleu Selpak started as a group of nine young artists whose interest in the creative arts was sparked while taking drawing and watercolour classes with art teacher Veronique Decrop at the Site Two Refugee Camp on the Thai-Cambodian border in the 1980s.

One of the original founders of Phare Ponleu Selpak, artist Srey Bandaul, will be introducing the book at the launch.

Bandaul said art was used as a kind of therapy to help young people deal with the trauma they had experienced in the camp.

“I think Veronique focused on art therapy to explore and get the trauma from our body to the painting,” he said.

The artist finds it difficult to remember the initial inspiration behind Phare Ponleu Selpak. At the time he was in his early 20s and living at Site Two. “The camp was like a prison, it wasn’t a place that you had freedom, so I think it’s the heart.

“It was inspired from the heart,” he said, of the founding of the organisation.

After leaving the camp in 1993, the group settled in Battambang and founded Phare Friends. In 1994 they renamed themselves Phare Ponleu Selpak, meaning “brightness of the art”.

Initially the organisation taught only drawing, but over 20 years has progressed to include a performing arts school, teaching circus skills, music, theatre and dance.

Phare Ponleu Selpak's development superviser, Benedicte Guilbert, said the book shows evidence of NGOs working and doing well in the art field and art education.

“It’s more like a testimony. For Phare Ponleu Selpak itself, it is proof that if you are really convinced what you are doing is right and trying really hard, you can go really far,” she said.

“It’s really a story of hope and self-commitment, and seeing that 20 years after we are still here and bigger and stronger than ever, it’s really fulfilling and a good achievement.”

The launch will also include a meet and greet with the 20 Years, 20 Portraits photographer, Régis Binard, and a circus performance by Dara, one of the circus students profiled in the book.

Romeet Gallery, 34E1 Street 178. 6:30pm.

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