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An artist rises from the ashes

By: Totallyrandomman Posted: February-03-2012 in

Srey Bandaul has come a long way since he first picked up a paint brush at the SiteTwo Refugee camp on the Thai border. Spooked by personal experience of fleeing the murderous Khmer Rouge, the 38-year-old has turned memories of a traumatic past into a promising artistic future.

Much of his work is a direct reflection of his time spent on the border: intricate, swirling smoke patterns are caught on paper in a process best described as cathartic. “The smoke has bad associations for me, with the smoke of the exploding bombs,” he says. “But also with the oil lamps we used to read by and light our huts at the camp, the thick smoke filling the room and making it hard to breathe.”

During his time as a young refugee, the budding artist helped found a community school specialising in visual and performing arts. Called Phare Ponleu Selpak, it found a permanent home in Battambang when the repatriation process was finally complete. The school now boasts 1,500 pupils and provides guidance on social issues such as domestic violence and healthcare, as well as training in the arts.

Artist-in-residence at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s studios on Governors Island in New York for the past five months, Bandaul recently returned to his homeland and has been on hand at Romeet Gallery on Street 178 to talk about how the experience helped shape his work. “After five months in New York, I know where I can go and what I want to do and what I have to do,” he says.
In the US, audiences were treated to three exhibitions, the first of which – Looking for Angkor, at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Arts Centre Building 110 – was first shown 10 years ago at the Reyum Gallery in Phnom Penh, where he made his debut. All 33 drawings were donated for show by New York collector Geraldine Kunstadter, who had bought them from Reyum a decade ago, as soon as she heard Bandaul was US-bound.

More than 250 art aficionados crammed into New York’s Open Studios in December to see Bandaul unveil new works during the second exhibition. There, mannequins were dressed in traditional kormas made from aluminium cans he had gathered from the city’s streets. A representation, Bandaul says, of the rapid development and modernisation of Cambodia. “Only six or seven years ago, almost nobody in Cambodia drank cans of beer. Now, even the remotest villages have a shop selling cans. The modern world brings forgetfulness in a can.”

The final exhibition, entitled Memory of Smoke and staged at Topaz Arts in Queens, has proven so popular that it has been extended by more than two months to March 3. Bandaul’s work has been shown in Norway, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, and Singapore. It’s also the subject of two books, Looking at Angkor and Land of the Elephant. His next exhibition in Cambodia is scheduled for some time in November at Java Arts Cafe.


This article was 1st published in The Advisor - All back issues are available as downloads here

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