Artists tell the tale of plundered fields of ‘gold’

Artistic couple Koeurm Kolab (left) and Poy Chhunly.
Artistic couple Koeurm Kolab (left) and Poy Chhunly. Scott Rotzoll

Artists tell the tale of plundered fields of ‘gold’

Golden Land, the exhibition that opened last Sunday at Sangker Gallery in Battambang, is named for its roots in one of Cambodia’s most fiercely contested resources: arable ground.

The paintings by artist Koeurm Kolab and her husband, Poy Chhunly, are intended to relay to viewers the specific plight of indigenous communities living in Ratanakkiri province.

At Sangker this week, the couple explained the roundabout route by which Golden Land had come to be. Last year, Chhunly said, they travelled to Ratanakkiri on the advice of Mok Rotha – the gallery’s French-Cambodian founder.  

“He had the idea to find Van Gogh in Ratanakkiri,” Chhunly said, elaborating that Rotha’s vision was for them to apply the Dutch post-impressionist’s distinctive stubby brushwork to the rolling hills of the mountainous province.
“But I said, ‘no, we are artists, I want to do what I want’,” he said smiling.

Instead, the inspiration that the couple found was of subject rather than style: both were appalled by the desperate situation of villagers who had sold the land they lived and worked on, seemingly under duress, to large companies.

The paintings, eight by Kolab and three by Chhunly, are sometimes literal: a woman tapping a tree for rubber, or crouched to sell bananas at the market. Others are figurative. One striking portrait by Kolab is of a hunched woman, her worries symbolised by houses tethered like balloons to the basket on her back.

Despite being made by two different artists, there is a striking visual unity to Golden Land. Both painters favour flat backgrounds – almost always in a golden yellow – with clearly outlined compositions in the foreground.

A figurative painting by artist Koerm Kolab engages with ethnic minorities land rights issues. Photo supplied
A figurative painting by artist Koerm Kolab engages with ethnic minorities land rights issues. Photo supplied

Similarities are perhaps to be expected. As well as being married, Chhunly and Kolab trained under the same teachers at Phare Ponleu Selpak and both make a living teaching animation.

The influence of their day job shows itself in the paintings’ intentionally limited depth of field.

The difficulty of running a community-focussed art space in Battambang was highlighted recently by the announcement that Sammaki, mainstay of the local scene, was to close at the end of the month.

Laura Petit, general manager at Sangker, said that her gallery was shielded from some of the financial pressures because their founder Rotha paid rent and utilities for the space.

But Petit said that she understood the nearby gallery’s plight: “Battambang is a great city for art, but I think buyers and collectors go to Phnom Penh, too, and not Battambang,” she said.

She said she nonetheless had reason to believe that things were looking up, pointing out that some paintings from Golden Land have already been sold. The most unusual buyer for the new works, she said, was an employee of the Ministry of Defence.

Despite the politically sensitive nature of Golden Land, Petit didn’t suggest any untoward motivations for the visit.

“It just seemed like the guy was really interested in art,” she said. “He spoke French, made comparisons with different artists and then brought two paintings.”

Golden Land is on at Battambang’s Sangker Gallery, Street 1.5, until May 27

MOST VIEWED

  • US think tank warns of China's 'ulterior motives'

    A US think tank on Tuesday warned that spreading Chinese investment in the Indo-Pacific follows a pattern of leveraging geopolitical influence at the expense of the nations receiving investment, including Cambodia. The report looks at a sample of 15 Chinese port development projects, noting that the

  • Defence Ministry denies weapons in smuggling case came from Cambodia

    After a Thai national was arrested last week for allegedly smuggling guns from Cambodia to Thailand, Cambodia's Defence Ministry has claimed the weapons seized during the arrest are not used in Cambodia, despite the fact that both types of rifle seized are commonly found in

  • More than three tonnes of ivory reportedly bound for Cambodia seized in Mozambique

    A total of 3.5 tonnes of ivory reportedly bound for Cambodia was seized by authorities in Mozambique late last week, according to the NGO Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES' information was based on a report from the

  • Shipwreck found off coast of Koh Kong

    Royal Cambodian Navy researchers are working to identify a decades-old shipwreck found earlier this month off the coast of Koh Kong province. Divers found the 70-metre-long wreck on April 4 about a mile from Koh Chhlam island, according to Navy officials. Deputy Navy Commander Tea Sokha,