Rescued from modern-day slavery in Thailand as teens, the Romcheik 5 artists are now thriving
The four artists who make up the Romcheik 5 collective live and work in a series of wooden huts down a dirt track on the road out of Battambang. They spend their days painting, playing football and doing their best to make sure the resident toddler – the son of one of the artists – stays out of harm’s way.
It’s a tranquil way of life, and one that stands in striking juxtaposition to the artists’ past: they met in Thailand as teenagers, having been sold by their Cambodian families to traffickers in bonded labour deals. The work was backbreaking and paid almost nothing. They were also in Thailand illegally and, before any of the boys could see out their contracts, they were picked up by police and dumped back over the border.
“My brain was so full of troubles,” the artist Hour Seyha says of his life at the time. “I was born into a nightmare.”
Today, the men are on a very different path. Just this week, Phnom Penh’s Romeet Gallery unveiled an exhibition by Mil Chankrim – the 25-year-old’s debut solo show. Seyha, Bor Hak and Nget Champenh – the other artists who make up the collective – are also achieving a level of recognition that outstrips their tender years, including exhibiting in Paris, Toronto and New York.
The collective was born of a chance encounter two years ago. Alain Troulet, a French businessman living in Phnom Penh, was persuaded by an acquaintance to sponsor Seyha, who had gained a scholarship place at the Phare Ponleu Selpak art school.
At the insistence of the go-between, Troulet went to Seyha’s home – a 2 metre by 2 metre corrugated iron shack. “The condition was very terrible,” Troulet recalls. “But what he was painting, I was shocked it was so good.”
After that, things happened quickly. Seyha introduced Troulet to his friend and fellow Phare student Nget Chanpenh, who was living in similar conditions, then to Bor Hak and Mil Chankrim. Each time, Troulet was struck by the vibrancy of their work. “I said: ‘OK, stop it. Find a place where you can live and work together’,” he says. “They found this place with the four little houses and I said OK.”
The artists pay no rent, but in all other ways they support themselves by selling traditional paintings to tourist shops in Siem Reap. The delicate watercolours stand in stark contrast to the work that the artists make in their own time: here, the subject is personal and the pain is evident.
Chankrim’s latest exhibition features a troubling series of portraits of other-worldly creatures. Like most work he makes, they are about his mother, who played an erratic part in Chankrim’s childhood due to recurring mental health problems. “She was crazy after she had an accident, and she never had hair,” he says, pointing to the bulbous exposed scalps in his paintings.
The challenges of the past reveal themselves in the work of all the artists. Above the bed that Seyha shares with his wife and small son hangs the picture that he says means the most to him: an imagined portrait of his mother at a time when she was sick, the splodged, dripping colours obscuring the outline of her face. Another of his paintings features Seyha and his many brothers and sisters clustered around his mother, with the blunt title Factory For Poor People.
Family troubles still loom large in the painters’ lives as well as in their art. Shortly before Chanpenh’s first exhibition in 2012, he discovered that his family had resold him to the traffickers. The only solution was for Troulet to pre-buy three paintings from the upcoming show, raising enough to pay back the traffickers. “They refunded the money and it was finished,” Troulet says.
And since three of the four artists married, in-laws have added to the burden. “The families thought: ‘Wow, this place will be the central bank,’” Troulet says. At the request of the artists, he has become draconian in ensuring that they are left alone, forbidding in-laws even from visiting the compound. “I am like a railing,” he explains, and he means it: he has given up his job in Phnom Penh and built a house in front of the huts where he now lives. “Since I am here, the family never comes,” he says.
Enabling the success of the Romcheik 5 artists has become Troulet’s raison d’être. He has bought the neighbouring patch of land, and is in the process of building a gallery space on it.
“If you told me five years before that I would be in a house in Battambang with these artists, I would have said ‘What?’” he says, laughing, recalling that when he first agreed to sponsor Seyha as a student, he had been unwilling even to meet him in person.
But the unexpected path has been a happy one. “I was lucky to meet them and they were lucky to meet me.”
Characters of My Inner Tale by Mil Chankrim is currently showing at Romeet Gallery, #34E1 Street 178.