In the quiet town of Battambang and away from the charming gallery district, Romcheik 5 Art Space stands alone. Named after their neighborhood, it is increasingly growing from the original factory space four young artists and their French benefactor began 7 years ago. Gardens grow food and herbs and now a roof-top cafe, complete with a working loom weaving 100% cotton kramas, serves delectable drinks and treats with a lush view and cool breezes.
Despite the serenity it presents, Romcheik 5 art space is a formidable force powered by a collective of artists and associates who do not stop creating, collecting, exhibiting and selling their work internationally. The gallery houses over 100 art pieces reflecting many of Battabangs’s artistic history and allows its visitors to receive a rare sense of what has been going on in Cambodia since the war. This is an accomplishment since Cambodia offers few spaces to view large collections of contemporary art.
Their story reflects the larger story of Cambodia and the tribulations that transpired trying to survive the destruction of their country and culture. The core artists are Bor Hak, Hour Seyha, Nget Chanpenh, and Mil Chankrin and each of them found the strength to move beyond the horrors of their earlier years. They are all graduates of Phare Ponleu Selpak School and like many others, they bonded from their shared experiences of abandonment, exile, loneliness, trauma, and modern slavery.
They are still quite young and they are producing intriguing works, reflecting both their individual stories and aesthetics as well as their clear mind’s eye exploration of their nation.
They illuminate the darkness.
A recent exhibition of their work at Mirage Contemporary Art Space in Siem Reap allowed me to make connections with the collective and Phal Sopheak, who recently spearheaded their rooftop cafe, offered me an enthusiastic welcome when I visited Battambang. The gallery meanders and requires time to ponder its depths, allowing you to be introduced to other artists in Cambodia as well as follow the growth and development of the original four artists.
At every corner, you can feel how they have mined the spiritual and social underpinnings of their culture. You can sense how Mil Chankrin’s work slightly reflects the style of Egon Schiele, the 20th-century early exponent of Expressionism- yet manages to richly inform you of Khmer life in fresh and often humorous renditions of tragedy and absurdity. Strong pieces from Hour Seyha and Nget Chanpenh simultaneously possess a studied yet personal spontaneity that distinguishes them from fellow Khmer artists with distinctive and alluring styles.
There are large works on long walls that share the emblematic qualities of the Harlem Rennaisance artists from America with their bold tendency to reach towards abstraction as they clearly announce what they are expressing. Bor Hak’s wood and metal sculpture carry the folk art and tribal qualities that endure time, while his more recent wood-burning pieces reminded me of Whitfield Lovell’s drawings in pencil, oil stick, or charcoal on wood – but with a dose of commercial colors that I am unsure is purposeful or not.
Yet the joy of the Romcheik 5 art space collective is not whether or not you sense the trails of other artists that have moved you from the past. Nor is it whether you feel comfortable or not with their explorations.
The joy is that they are working artists in a nation that was void of art after the war and the Khmer Rouge’s annihilation of all things cultural. It is the joy of watching young artists committed to their work and its evolution. Because of their willingness to stretch their possibilities and explore with discipline, they are undoubtedly leaving large footprints in their wake.
Bats Do Not Wear Condom by Seyha Hour
The Ambulance by Chankrin Mil
Wood and metal sculpture by Bor Hak.
Horizon of the Monkeys by Nget Chanpenh