Art rising from the ashes

Srey Bandaul’s newest exhibition, Under the Sarong, at Romeet
Srey Bandaul’s newest exhibition, Under the Sarong, at Romeet. Eli Meixler

Art rising from the ashes

In the wake of his successes on the international stage, Srey Bandaul uses coarse charcoal as well as sarongs to sculpt troubled souls on show at Romeet Gallery

When artist Srey Bandaul was a small child growing up in a Thai refugee camp, his mother dressed him in a sarong so that he could pass as a girl – women were prioritised for food handouts. As an infant, she swaddled him against the cold with the same material.

In Under The Sarong, the new installation piece to be unveiled at Romeet Gallery on Friday, Bandaul has packed a simple fabric with rich symbolism from both his own life and wider Cambodian imagery. He sees the colourful sarong material that coats his sculptures as a symbol of caring womanhood and a proud emblem of the ease with which Khmer culture integrates foreign influences — sarongs were originally imported from Malaysia and India, but quickly assimilated to become one of Cambodia’s most recognisable styles of dress. At the same time, he understands its associations as a token of poverty, and a bringer of bad luck for men who pass beneath it on a washing line. To describe a man as “under the sarong” is to mock him as emasculated. 

This kind of dense symbolism risks being obstructive if leaned on heavily. Work can become relatable to only when accompanied by lengthy contextualisation. Thankfully, this is not the case for Under the Sarong.

Situated in an otherwise bare gallery, the dozen figures that Bandaul has sculpted on chicken wire and mosquito netting frames are instantly engaging. Their legless bodies seem to be straining hopelessly to escape their coarse charcoal bedding, and to break free of their own twisted bodies. Most have no arms, but bulges under the surface of the patchwork sarong evoke bound limbs. Their faces, cast in pale plaster using Bandaul’s students as models, have a death mask chill. Despite their proximity to one another, the figures appear lost in melancholic, isolated struggles. The immediate effect is distressing, although the exhibition’s curator, Kate O’Hara, doesn’t see it that way. “I find it so worked and beautiful that I’m not overcome by the emotion of it,” she says.

Bandaul’s conceptual bent has won him an important fan. Curator Iola Lenzi discovered the artist following a fortuitous meeting with O’Hara in Lenzi’s hometown of Singapore. At the time she was working to put together a significant exhibition of Southeast Asian art in Istanbul. The Roving Eye, on show at Istanbul’s Arter gallery until January, features the work of 36 artists from the region. Bandaul is the only Cambodian.

“Cambodia wasn’t on my list when I started thinking about the exhibition,” Lenzi says, explaining that Turkey’s political disinterest in Southeast Asia liberated her from the diplomatic pressure to include certain countries for the sake of it. “What they wanted was an exhibition that made the Southeast Asian region legible”.

She found what she wanted in Bandaul’s work Digestion: “He was talking about big ideas that were very relevant to the region – memory, loss, movement, migration.” As well as installing the sculptural piece Digestion in Istanbul, Lenzi commissioned a performative piece in which Bandaul returns to the refugee camp he grew up on and traces the outline of his childhood home. The film, titled Site 2, is showing alongside Under the Sarong at Romeet.

Lenzi sees Bandaul’s emergence as part of a wider trend of Southeast Asian countries being deemed fashionable, with Cambodia and Myanmar prime examples. “People start coming through and looking at the art – a good thing. On the negative side, this fast uptake may be commerce-driven and rather superficial, so you may get overheating as one did in Hanoi in the late 1990s. The scene may be overwhelmed with the incessant attention, some artists getting caught up in the selling rather than the making of art.”

That Bandaul is finding favour with international art connoisseurs is evident. As well as The Roving Eye, he has just finished showing in London as part the SEA ArtsFest’s group exhibition Hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand. But he seems an unlikely candidate to succumb to the giddy trajectory that Lenzi describes. “After teaching the whole day, he’ll feed his daughter, read her a bedtime story and then go downstairs and work in his studio,” O’Hara says.

With commitments like that, there’s probably not much time left in the day to be spent chasing the chimera of art world fame.
Under the Sarong opens Friday, November 21, at Romeet Gallery, #34E1 Street 178.

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