Traditionally home to a host of creative minds, Battambang has its roots steeped deep in the country’s art scene. Marissa Carruthers meets some of the artists pushing the recent revival. Photography by Charles Fox.
Khchao Touch sits cross-legged in front of her latest colourful creation in the studio that lies beneath her Battambang home. She looks through an open set of doors onto a small garden full of the nature from which she draws inspiration to create abstract paintings and thought-provoking installations.
She’s one of a group of emerging artists based in what is fast becoming Cambodia’s cultural capital.“Battambang has always had an artistic feel to it. It breeds and attracts artists and I hope it will continue to encourage new artists to express themselves,” says the 32-year-old artist.
Historically, the Kingdom’s second-largest city has been the birthplace of many of the country’s most famous artists, musicians and intellectuals, such as 1960s singer Ros Sereysothe and S-21 survivor and painter Vann Nath.
Although the majority of artists were killed or fled under the Khmer Rouge, 35 years on from their ousting the city’s art scene is gaining traction at a rapid pace. Today, Battambang is well on its way to once again being Cambodia’s creative capital, with more artists per capita than anywhere else in the country.
“Battambang is a really exciting place to be right now in terms of the arts,” says Darren Swallow, owner of Lotus, a three-storey art space and brasserie. “There are a lot of artists based here, both new and established, and they really are creating amazing work that is catching international attention. It’s fantastic to watch.”
Romcheik 5 is one example of how creativity is blossoming in Battambang. Nestled in a small set of live-in studios across the Sangkae River, four young artists are carving successful careers for themselves.
Here the talented collective, who have been plucked from lives of horror having being forced into child labour in Thailand, call on their undeniable creativity to produce stunning contemporary work that challenges the audience.
At the age of 13, Bo Hak travelled illegally to Thailand with his grandfather on the promise of well-paid employment. They were forced to work long hours in appalling conditions, often seven days a week, in pineapple farms and factories dying fabric.
Unable to produce passports during a police raid, they were arrested and put in prison. After being separated, Bo, originally from Kampong Thom, was released and taken to the border where he was taken under the care of an NGO and, for the first time in three years, able to step on home soil.
Recongising his talent and passion for painting, the now 23-year-old was given a place at Battambang performing arts school Phare Ponleu Selpak. Here, he developed an interest in contemporary art and sculpture, which is his expertise.
Since graduating in 2010, he has set up a workshop at Romcheik 5 where he spends his days and nights creating bold and at times dark paintings and sculptures from materials such as wood and clay.
“For me, art is a way of expression,” Bo, who discovered his passion while sketching at the age of 12, says. “It’s a way of talking about things happening inside me, around me and in the world.”
Chov Theanly is also helping to stamp the city firmly on the artistic map. As a self-proclaimed “accidental artist”, the 29-year-old became fascinated with drawing after watching his uncle, who painted posters of stars from the 1960s, sketch the late King Father Sihanouk’s portrait in 1999.
Determined to learn the skill, he asked his cousin to teach him to use the Internet, which had just been introduced to his hometown of Battambang. He went to spend his spare time learning to draw on YouTube.
Under the guidance of Battambang-based expat artist Nicolas Grey, Chov learnt to use abstract ways to convey his message. Now, his huge oil on canvas pieces, which tackle class division and other social issues, continue to make waves abroad, especially in Singapore.
“Battambang is becoming a healthy place to be as an artist,” Chov says, adding he relocated to the city three years ago, trading in his graphic design career to become a full-time painter. “The growing number of expats living here and foreigners visiting is also helping to foster the scene and I enjoy being part of it.”
Evidence of the emerging landscape is the smattering of independent galleries, studios and workspaces opening up shop. Street 2.5 is quickly becoming the hub of the movement, with Lotus, Sammaki and Make Meak centred there. Then there’s Phare Ponleu Selpak, also home to the renowned circus, and Studio Art Battambang, to name a few.
Returning to her painting to add a splash of purple, Khchao Touch says she has watched creative vibrancy blossom in the 13 years she has been painting in the town.
“Artists here nowadays are starting to push themselves into new areas and explore new methods of painting. That is very refreshing to see,” she says as she picks up the bamboo stick she uses to paint, dips it in oil colours and turns to her easel.