For the past four years, the Sammaki Gallery has been giving artists the chance to curate their own shows and get feedback both good and bad. But now, with the major funder gone, the space’s future is in doubt
Sammaki means “unity” in Khmer, and for the past four years, that’s the ethos that Battambang’s small Sammaki Gallery has been striving to live by.
Housed in a simple whitewashed villa with tiled floors, it’s a place that hosts workshops, events and a fast-changing roster of exhibitions by local artists.
It’s also one of the few galleries in the country where artists – even those who have never exhibited before – are encouraged to take charge of every aspect of their show: the artist curates the works on display and manages packaging and publicity for the show.
It’s an approach whose benefits and drawbacks are clearly visible in the gallery’s current solo show, the portrait series Life is Suffering, by artist Lous Piseth, which opened last week.
Only 24 years old and a recent graduate of the Phare Ponleu Selpak art school, Piseth was encouraged to mount his first solo show after work he placed in group exhibitions sold well.
He took out a loan from Sammaki to buy materials, and produced a dozen large format charcoal and pencil portraits.
Viewed en masse in the gallery, the quality of works varies markedly. Some – particularly Piseth’s detailed, evocatively contoured close-ups of the elderly – exhibit both technical and emotional maturity, while other drawings come across flat.
Speaking before the opening, Darren Swallow, a co-founder of Sammaki, explained why it was so important for artists to make their own decisions.
“It’s a safe space for them to fail if necessary, because it’s kind of how they learn,” he said.
“If there’s a small mistake or one artwork should really have been curated out, it’s allowed to stay, because they get feedback that way.”
Swallow explained that there would be a meeting prior to any show with the managerial committee, where advisers including Phare Ponleu Selpak founder Srey Bandaul could share their feedback.
“They can take our advice or not,” he said.
Swallow is open about the fact that he doesn’t always agree with the decisions taken by artists.
For example, he thought the title of Pisey’s show should be changed to something more nuanced.
“It’s called Life is Suffering, but quite a few pictures are of children playing,” he said. “They’ve had my feedback.”
Heak Pheary, an artist turned gallery manager at Sammaki, echoed Swallow’s insistence on allowing artists to do things their own way.
She said her only influence on the shape of Pisey’s show had been on how to hang works: each portrait is suspended between two split bamboo poles, which complements the rustic subject matter.
Allowing often inexperienced artists almost total control is a brave strategy from a gallery where commercial imperatives cannot be ignored.
Sammaki first ran into trouble financially in 2012 when, six exhibitions in, a large donor cut back on funding.
Artists rallied round the space, donating paintings to an auction whose proceeds helped get the gallery back on its feet.
Regular funding was then secured from the Cambodia Children’s Trust, but earlier this year, the NGO pulled all support from the venue.
Since then, the gallery has been funding itself entirely through sales – a tricky business when 70 per cent of profits go to the artist, and works sometimes sell for as little as $30.
“It’s a bit of a torturous tightrope,” admitted Swallow.
“And I guess I’m the one with the responsibility that if in any given month there isn’t money to pay the bills, whose going to pay it?”
Despite funding applications put together by Swallow along with advisers who have undertaken residencies at the gallery, a long-term solution has yet to appear.
“We’re still looking for that wealthy individual who will donate $10,000 or $15,000 a year to keep us going,” he said.
But Swallow remains hopeful that someone will step up to plug the gaps, confident in the value of the gallery as an artist-led initiative that puts development before profit.
“I would say that Sammaki is a donor’s wet dream,” he said.