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Galleries get a jolt from Battambang art scene

Channy Chhoeun’s first solo exhibition, Shelter, features large canvasses infused with rich tones. Photo supplied
Channy Chhoeun’s first solo exhibition, Shelter, features large canvasses infused with rich tones. Photo supplied

Galleries get a jolt from Battambang art scene

Siem Reap’s art scene got a double shot this week, with two separate exhibitions opening within days of one another. Out of the Darkness is the creation of Battambang art collective Romcheik 5 and opened last night at Constable Gallery at Large, while The Aviary Hotel is hosting fellow Battambanger Channy Chhoeun’s first solo exhibition, which opens tonight. 

Romcheik 5 is the name of a neighbourhood in Battambang where four young artists, graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak, established a joint art space and studio in 2015. Here, Bor Hak, Hour Seyha, Nget Chanpenh and Mil Chankrim all use art to exorcise the outcomes of childhoods marked by abandonment, hard labour, exile and fear. 

Out of the Darkness is a collaboration between the founders of Romcheik 5 and artist Thang Sothea. Within it, each artist has his own unique style, but they are united by a quest to move from the darkness into the light. 

Bor Hak and Hour Seyha fix their gaze on sociopolitical issues like deforestation and Khmer-style feudalism, while Nget Chanpenh addresses themes of family, friends, intimacy and loneliness in a process that seems to turn the artist into his own therapist. Finally, Mil Chankrim’s work is a painful examination of the work yet to be done on the punishing task of surviving the past.

For Sasha Constable, the founder of Constable Gallery at Large, putting together the exhibition has been an eye-opener. “The creations of these four young artists are raw and enticing,” she says. “Dealing with difficult subject matters, the artists in their own ways visualise areas of Cambodian society that I imagine are not spoken about that often.

“An angst pervades their work that likely comes from horrendous early experiences in life, and art has become their tool for moving through it.” Like the members of Romcheik 5 collective, Channy Chhoeun also graduated from Phare in 2013, but his work takes a different approach. In oil and acrylic paintings infused with light and rich tones, the artist portrays large birds that fill the canvas.

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Mil Chankrim examines how to ‘survive’ the past. Photo supplied

Chhoeun’s work keeps with the Aviary Hotel’s own feathery motif, but the paintings come with an additional message. Chhoeun’s first solo exhibition is titled Shelter, and the subjects are those most affected by challenges generated by greed and indifference, like pollution and climate change. 

Ultimately, Chhoeun hopes this work will contribute to the education of society and that people who see it will use that knowledge to take action that makes the world a more beautiful place. It is perhaps Chhoeun’s way of repaying the birds for the relief they have given him.

“He is an animal lover, and is especially attracted to the vibrant colours and beautiful song of birds. Hearing them sing takes away his stress and makes him feel relaxed, perhaps connected to his childhood in the jungle,” says Craig Dodge, director of sales and marketing for Phare, the Cambodian Circus. 

This weekend recognises Battambang talent in Siem Reap at a greater level than before, according to Constable. “Battambang has been home to many great Cambodian artists, and that vein runs on with a beautiful unique creative spirit. I believe many people will really start to follow the buzz emanating from there,” she says.

Out of the Darkness is on at Constable Gallery at Large through February 14. Shelter goes up at the Aviary Hotel tonight.

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