Brushstrokes from Battambang

A band of creatives is setting out to put Battambang art on the radar, beginning with a current exhibition in Siem Reap. Nicky McGavin speaks with two of the group’s vibrant young artists. Photos of Chhon Ravy paintings provided by Trotchaek Pneik.

AsiaLIFE Guide, August 2011

Sometimes you meet someone, and you can feel before they even begin speaking that they’re destined for great things. Reaksmey Yean is one of those. Only 20-years-old, the clarity of his vision and cohesiveness of his ideas make him stand out from any crowd. That and the afro.

Chhon Ravy's Stepmother

Chhon Ravy’s Stepmother

Yean is the founder of Trotchaek Pneik, an artists’ collective established in Battambang. The group is made up of 12 artists, including two musicians, a visual artist and a circus performer, and aims to create a platform and focal point for Battambang’s emerging arts scene.

I feel that right now Battambang is starting to recover its name in artistic life,” says Yean. “Before the Khmer Rouge, we were very strong for this. Recently, most artists would all leave Battambang to go to Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Now they’re starting to come back.”

There’s a fizz in the artistic air in Battambang. Trotchaek Pneik hopes to open an Arts Hall in December, as the crown on a year of unprecedented activity. “We want to bring multiple artistic forms of expression to the people,” explains Yean.

Yean describes his dream of transforming the pretty, lively town into the artistic centrepoint for Cambodia. “I want it to be the first artistic point for tourists in Cambodia, and to have an annual arts festival here too,” he adds. A key objective for the cooperative is to work with the university in Battambang to promote artistic appreciation amongst young Cambodians.

Aside from encouraging pride in Cambodia, Yean also talks with conviction about the role art can play in Cambodia’s future.

“People in Cambodia need to understand that they are the owners and the government is not there to do the work for them,” says Yean. “I think art can help to bring about social and political change for this country. If artists get together and support the people, art can really make a difference.

In July, an exhibition opened at Hotel 1961 in Siem Reap that includes the work of Chhon Ravy, a member of Trotchaek Pneik. Chhon graduated from the Phare Ponleu Selpak school in Battambang this year. The exhibition was in part an opportunity to raise funds for the opening of a new exhibition space in Battambang by the end of the year.

In the Thy Kingdom Pop Gallery, Chhon Ravy’s series of oil paintings on canvas are grim examinations of the stepmother who has clearly had a devastating effect on the artist’s life. Chhon’s father re-married when Chhon was three years old, but then left to work as a labourer in Thailand, leaving the young child in the care of a malevolent force that sought to undermine him at every turn.

The paintings depict Chhon’s stepmother in various forms, including a snake or a seductive pair of lips from which a slithering tongue reaches out to choke the aspirations of the young boy. Sometimes she is expressed through the medium of the tools she used to punish or control Chhon. In one particularly graphic image, a household broom pierces the artist’s head, causing blood to pour down his face.

Notwithstanding the blackness of these paintings, Chhon’s stepmother has clearly not succeeded in thwarting his ambitions to become a painter. Asked if she had seen the paintings, Chhon replied that she had not, although his father had. “It would be better if she can see it, but my father thinks she will be very angry,” says Chhon. “I would like to show [the paintings] to other step-parents, to ask them not to treat children the way my stepmother treated me.”

Work from Chhon will be included in a coming exhibition at Meta House in Phnom Penh, as part of a group show organised by Trotchaek Pneik. One goal of the public display is to raise awareness of and funds for the group. With the collective’s many ambitions, including the Arts Hall in particular, the question of money is a challenge.

“Finance is a real problem for the project, although we are trying our best to make sure it goes ahead as planned,” says Yean.

Categories: Cambodia, Culture, Siem Reap

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