For the final exhibition in its current incarnation, Romeet is set to host a retrospective tracking the evolution of Phare’s visual artists
After three years as one of a small clutch of dedicated art spaces in the capital, Romeet Gallery is closing. Well, not closing exactly, but undergoing a substantial enough rebrand that they’ve decided now is a fitting moment to host a retrospective of works that have been associated with the Street 278 space since it opened in 2012.
Phare Celebration: Last But Not Least features the work of around a dozen artists, all of whom have come up through Phare Ponleu Selpak – the Battambang art school that has positioned itself at the forefront of contemporary art in the Kingdom since it opened in 1995. Romeet Gallery, which is owned by the art school, was established to represent the school’s graduating artists in the capital, and is currently managed by French curator Camille Baczynski.
Speaking last week in a gallery full of half-unpacked sculptures and canvasses propped up against the walls, Baczynski explained that she had grouped the exhibition into five roughly chronological sections.
The first, “Nativity”, showcases works that predate Romeet, including the colourful naive art of deaf-mute painter Ot Veasna, while the second, called “A Trip of 180 Miles”, features the locally celebrated artists including Long Kosal, Pen Robit and Mao Soviet that were exhibited in the gallery.
“That was the first time the artworks were transported from Battambang to Phnom Penh all together,” explained Baczynski. “I took that as a metaphor that was really interesting – this big truck with all the artwork arriving on the first day.”
Baczynski emphasised that hanging work in a white wall gallery was a significant step for artists used to strapping their canvases to the back of their scooters to get to an exhibition. “Here you’ve got to create something really professional – an artist’s statement, a catalogue with prices, a resume from the artist ... it’s something they’re not used to doing,” she said, adding that because Phare nurtured a very communal mode of living, the more competitive edge of the big city and the prospect of a solo show could be daunting.
“They are afraid to be alone because they work together, they share their brushes, they are never alone,” she said.
In the third group of works, “Emotional Pattern”, Baczynski has chosen pieces from 2013 – the year that Phare artists began working increasingly with installation and sculpture. Among the pieces exhibited is a work by Srey Bandaul, a co-founder of Phare Ponleu Selpak and, Baczynski believes, an influential figure in this transition towards more experimental formats. “He’s maybe not the first one who did it [3D art] but he was the first one who was celebrated for that,” she said.
The section dedicated to 2014, “Express the world”, showcases artists’ more figurative, subjective engagement with their canvases, while the 2015 series “Postcards from the Present” presents recent small format works including some by Alic Khuon, who is a first time exhibitor in the capital.
Baczynski has been curator at Romeet for less than a year, and said she had only identified some broad brush trends in the Phare graduates’ work: a preference for large format, portraiture and the colour orange.
But she said that delving in to the archives chronologically to prepare the exhibition had provided her with an opportunity to better understand the formation of the artists she has been working with. In particular, she has noted the strong influence of artists visiting from abroad. For example, after classes with French-Khmer artist Séra, artists became far more contemplative about the process of completing a work. “Séra could take a year to complete a canvas,” she explained. “It’s something the artist didn’t used to do before – they were really close with their work. But now they know they can take their time.”
She put this sensitivity towards outside influence down to a relative paucity of options. “If I am in France, I can go every day to a workshop in a museum, but here it is more important,” she said.
Kate O’Hara, who was curator of Romeet from its first ever show until autumn of last year, agreed that it was possible to see distinct generations emerging with their own artistic styles, citing “existentialism and identity” as a strong force in the successful cohort of artists that includes Pen Robit, Bo Rithy and Sin Rithy. She said that in recent years she had also noted a trend towards bold experimentations with form: live action paintings, and site-specific works that couldn’t be confined to within the gallery.
O’Hara sees Romeet as having been integral in linking the rural Battambang school to something far bigger. “The decision to open the gallery in Phnom Penh was based on the growing international interest in Cambodian art which was predominately flowing into the capital,” she said.
But she emphasised that the space has been far more than merely a shop selling art, it’s also been a place facilitating conversations about what Cambodian art means, and about its future. “This self-critical engagement and reflection is seen at play in the work we have exhibited,” she said. “Romeet has provided a platform for experimentation.”
Baczynski said there was no need to fret that the creative hub was coming to an end. “It’s the last Romeet exhibition, but not the last Phare Ponleu Selpak gallery,” she said enigmatically, refusing to provide any specifics on what the future might hold. “Crazy adventures will happen in September.”
Phare Celebration: Last But Not Least opens on June 18 and runs until August 16 at Romeet Gallery, #34E1 Street 178.