On the afternoon of November 20 a celebration was held on the campus of the Battambang arts and culture non-profit Phare Ponleu Selpak in honour of the beloved teacher – who also co-founded the organisation 27 years ago – the late Srey Bandaul.

Prior to his passing, Bandaul had planned to open his own art gallery next to Phare in order to display his latest creations. His family went ahead and opened the gallery despite his passing and its first exhibition – in collaboration with curator Yean Reaksmey – on the same day as Bandaul’s memorial service.

“Some of his art will also be displayed in the exhibition space of Phare, inside our wooden building. More than a personal commemoration, we want this event to burst with art and make his legacy accessible to all so he can continue to inspire us every day,” says Morgane Darrasse, communications coordinator at Phare.

The event culminated with the lighting of 250 candles to illuminate a hanging Bodhi Tree created at the heart of the Phare campus. Paper lanterns were lit and rose into a starlit sky to the cheers and prayers of the assembled guests.

Around 500 of Bandaul’s family, friends and fans were present for the tribute event in person along with over 7000 additional people from around the world who watched it all online.

Bandaul was just 49 when he passed away in August of this year due to complications from Covid-19. His death inspired a torrent of grief as well as tributes to his life and work came pouring in from across the world.

A shrine to Srey Bandaul who co-founded Phare Ponleu Selpak 27 years ago. SUPPLIED

Bandaul had helped to restore arts and culture to Cambodia after the horrors of the Pol Pot regime and he had a deep love for Battambang and was tireless in his efforts trying to help it regains its crown as Cambodia’s cultural capital.

The celebration included memories of Bandaul shared by his family as well as poetry readings, music and dance performances, live painting – and since this was a Phare event there were, of course, also circus performances – all of which showed off the incredible array of talent and artistry that he helped nurture throughout the Kingdom.

“We are fortunate to be born as human beings and to get to know the other people around us, so we should be tolerant, forgiving and loving towards others because when we die we will never see each other again.

“The Earth is just a temporary abode for all of us. While we are alive as friends, brothers, sisters, fathers, mothers, and as a family, we must love one another,” Bandaul once said, imparting words of wisdom to his students.

Bandaul’s wife gave a moving eulogy during the service which all of the mourners present listened to with rapt attention, waiting patiently for her to continue though at times she had to pause because she was sobbing with grief.

“He was a man who always provided the people around him with advice, joy, and warmth, and he was a man who always brought joy to the people living around him and smiles to everyone around him including his family, friends, and his students. He was a man who did everything for others without thinking of his own time.

“What was important to him was that whenever he could help, he would do it without hesitation. He never said no to the people living around him and especially never to the Phare Family because he loved them so much and he treated Phare as his second home. He used to tell me very often that he wanted to see Phare grow bigger and bigger and he didn’t want to lose it. His love for Phare was indescribable,” she recalled.

Osman Khawaja, executive director of Phare Ponleu Selpak, says he is happy that all of their team was able to come together to pay such a creative, beautiful and fitting tribute to Bandaul, whom he called an authentic Cambodian cultural hero.

Khawaja recounted that Bandaul was one of the most important figures in the Cambodian contemporary art scene and through Phare Ponleu Selpak he had made a lasting impact on the Kingdom’s arts community with many of his students having gone on to become well-known artists in their own right.

“We are honoured and very grateful to have Provincial Governor of Battambang Dr Sok Lou join us to celebrate Srey Bandaul’s life and achievements. His presence here and his generous donation means a lot to all of us and we look forward to working closely together with his administration to reclaim Battambang’s title as the arts and culture capital of Cambodia,” said Khawaja.

Battambang provincial governor Sok Lou joins Phare to celebrate the life of Bandaul and his achievements. SUPPLIED

Bandaul spent most of his life working for and developing the Phare Visual and Applied Arts School in Battambang, a seminal institution that helped inspire the post-war rebirth of the wider arts community across Cambodia.

He spearheaded festivals, exhibitions and artists’collectives and in recent years he was responsible for Phare’s outreach programmes where he took special interest in bringing art to Cambodia’s marginalized communities because he truly believed that art should be for everyone.

Bandaul’s vision for his personal gallery was the creation of a space he could curate that would elevate the quality of arts in Battambang. He hoped it would be a space where artists could exhibit, share their stories and engage in discourse with each other and he wanted to encourage artist exchanges and residencies by hosting visits by artists from other cities or even other countries there.

Darrasse says they were honoured to open the gallery for him posthumously on Saturday with an exhibition displaying his last completed work of arts. The paintings – titled The Letter: Peace, Subjectivity, and Power – were completed in July, 2021, just before he passed away.

In his last series, Bandaul portrays national and international political figureheads alongside traditional Cambodian apsaras. White doves offer the figures envelopes, alluding to and addressing the forms, acts and intentions that make up our social rituals of giving and receiving that are performed, projected and manifested in our everyday personal and professional lives as well as through formal political protocols.

“I took no part in his artistic production. I only helped to organize the show and promote his work. I was working with Srey Bandaul to transform the downstairs space of his home into an art gallery which we would co-manage. I was to oversee all of the programmes and exhibitions featured at the gallery. This collaboration was to be done under the name Silapak Trotchaek Pneik,” curator and programme director Yean Reaksmey tells The Post.

Illuminated Bodhi Tree on the campus of Battambang art school and non-profit Phare Ponleu Selpak. PAGNA CHAN

The new gallery is called Petra Multi because Bandaul wanted to name it after his first daughter Thida Petra. The opening on Saturday was blessed by chanting monk’s performing a Buddhist ceremony, after which followed remarks by curator Reaksmey and a ribbon cutting.

Petra Contemporary Art is planning programmes and events to raise awareness, promote and support Bandaul and other’s works of art. It will also provide a forum for artists to share their experiences through community building activities.

Darrasse says that ultimately there are many things to be thankful for following Saturday’s tribute to their co-founder, Srey Bandaul.

They are grateful to Phare’s staff members, who drew on their memories of Bandaul and the inspiration he provided. They are thankful to every person who participated in the memorial – the hundreds who came to the ceremony in person and the thousands who joined online.

“Most of all, we are thankful for Srey Bandaul and how he turned the pain of his childhood into a mission to restore the gifts of art, culture, education and creativity to Cambodians.

“We pledge today to continue his work, never forgetting the example that his wonderful life and his unforgettable and ever-giving spirit left for all of us,” Darrasse says.