Children weaved through the giant, glowing lanterns, smiling at the colourful paintings on the wall while an elderly man squatted on the pavement across the street and peered curiously into the building.
By all indications, last Friday’s opening of the Cloudy & Loud art show at Make Maek Gallery in Battambang City served its purpose – to bring art to the city’s residents, and to provide a space for local artists to exhibit their work in a city still defining itself creatively.
Battambang, Cambodia’s second-largest city, was once a flourishing cultural centre, counting among its natives well-known artists like rock singer Ros Sereysothea and realist painter Vann Nath.
But the city remained one of the Khmer Rouge’s final strongholds into the 90’s, leaving its vibrant culture nearly decimated.
Make Maek Gallery, which opened last September under the ownership of husband-and-wife duo Mao Soviet and Phin Sophorn, is now spearheading a push to reinvigorate arts in the city.
“People are always proud because famous artists come from Battambang,” said Mao Soviet, also one of the featured artists of the new Cloudy & Loud exhibit.
“Now, it looks like art is being born again.”
Make Maek’s owners both graduated from Battambang’s renowned Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) arts school, known for training some of the country’s most promising young artists.
After seeing that many of their fellow PPS alumni were leaving Battambang to try their luck in Siem Reap or Phnom Penh’s more established art scenes, they decided it was time to nurture local talent.
“We want to bring an art market to Battambang, so artists don’t leave,” said Mao Soviet.
“We want to make Battambang the art capital of Cambodia again.”
The gallery has a store where artists can sell their work, and talks are underway with PPS to display student work at Make Maek before sending it down to the school’s Phnom Penh gallery.
Cloudy & Loud marks Make Maek’s fourth exhibit, and is a collaboration between Mao Soviet and Mexican-American painter Arnoldo Hurtado, who is living in Battambang on a Peace Corps placement.
The concept of the exhibit – where alongside the paintings, a mass of white lanterns fills the indoor space and flows out into the street – expands on Make Maek’s vision of “taking the art out into the community,” they say.
“Local Cambodians are scared to come into the gallery, they don’t understand the concept,” said Hurtado, adding that this is why they took part of the show, literally, out into the street. “We do it so they won’t feel as intimidated to come into the space.”
“At first it was very difficult to talk to the neighbours and local people and explain what we were doing,” said Mao Soviet, giving the example of a neighbour who was convinced the lanterns – inverted baskets painted over white, a colour associated with death in Buddhism – would bring bad luck.
“But now they like it, the children come and play.”
Late last year, Make Maek joined with PPS and Sammaki, a community arts centre and gallery located just down the street, to form the Battambang Arts Association.
The joint effort has resulted in the launch of a monthly “art walk” featuring local artists, businesses, and performers along Make Maek’s street.
So far the first two walks, held in February and March, have been a success in introducing neighbours to the arts.
“Last time even the grandmas came,” said Hurtado, “They were smiling, enjoying.”
Make Maek co-owner Phin Sophorn is pleased with the community response to the gallery’s work.
At the Cloudy & Loud opening, she signalled to a boisterous group of local children who were brought to the exhibit by an NGO.
“I hope they will be inspired and want to become artists in the future,” she said with a smile.
Make Maek is at #66 Street 2.5 in Battabang City, just below the central market. Cloudy & Loud will be on display for the next month, and the Battambang Artwalk happens every first Friday of the month from 5-9 pm on the same street.
To contact the reporter on this story: Diana Montaño at [email protected]