Cambodian art: The Buddha Mind in Battambang
She sits nimbly on the floor, robed in blue, her color of choice for the last several years. Khchao Touch is an artist in Battambang and she and her husband, Darren Swallow, have been deeply entwined in the Cambodian art scene for years. Touch (pronounced ‘Toi’) paints to find her freedom to be alive…and she paints with Buddha by her side. It is easy to fall into viewing her through the romantic lens of Western notions of Zen. Touch’s serene beauty and mother image hold an attractive appeal to our senses – but to do so diminishes both the woman and her art. There is much more to her story. Yet, Buddha mind is a good starting place towards appreciating her life and art.
Is the Buddha mind in the moment of creativity and the mind in the moment of meditation the same mind? Does Buddhism offer a possibility for people to open up to a larger ecology and a deepening of consciousness?
The American educator and philosopher, John Dewey, wrote Art as Experience in 1934 and introduced the world to the notion that life ‘’is about how we think, not what we think” and described the artistic process succinctly:
Life grows when a temporary falling out is a transition to a more extensive balance of the energies of the organism with those of the conditions under which it lives…. Equilibrium comes about not mechanically and inertly but out of, and because of, tension….Order is not imposed from without but is made out of the relations of harmonious interactions that energies bear to one another….Emotion is the conscious sign of a break, actual or impending. The discord is the occasion that induces reflection. Desire for restoration of the union converts mere emotion into interest in objects as conditions of realization of harmony. With the realization, material of reflection is incorporated into objects as their meaning.
In the introduction to their book Learning Mind, Editors Mary Jane Jacob and Jacquelynn Bass write:
The artistic process, like all human development, is an unbroken sequence of crises and resolutions. It is similar to walking: to move forward you push yourself to fall, then catch yourself. You catch yourself —“order is not imposed from without.” It’s a balancing act, this “temporary falling out” in order to “transition to” “somewhere else”, to maintain it, there has to be a relational exchange of energy.
Touch intuitively understands this. She has repeatedly experienced crisis in her life and now uses meditation and her art to create a new world for herself.
Photo by Kenden Alfond
Crisis and trauma are universal experiences in Cambodia and only a few lives are untouched by them. Touch was born in Battambang and taught herself to draw as a young child, finding her way to Phare Ponleu Selpak school where she received a free arts education like so many of Cambodia’s artists. After graduation, she became a Phare teacher and met her husband, Darren Swallow, a filmmaker and Jack-of-all-Trades. Her inspiration came from nature and her love for flowers is her hallmark, apparent as you watch her ride through Battambang’s streets on her flower garden cycle – which is literally a garden cart attached to the motorbike, ablaze with living colors. The couple has a daughter who was diagnosed with leukemia at a tender age and for many years, family life was disrupted with having to relocate to Thailand for medical care. The upheaval and emotional ordeal altered the couple’s perspective and they have been transforming their lives ever since.
Darren Swallow, a Welshman, had co-founded Sammaki Gallery in 2011 whose mission was to provide exhibit and meeting space for local artists and serve as a bridge between Phare’s art education and life as a professional artist. It was an ambitious mission considering that Battambang is the birthplace of much of Cambodia’s art and there were only rare resources available for artists to learn about curating, exhibiting and marketing. Artists were given full freedom to exhibit their works and it operated as an independent run, not-for-profit community art space. The gallery closed within a few years when the collective could not meet the operating funds required to keep it open. Touch and Darren were entrenched in the painful process of attending to their daughter and no benefactors stepped in to cover the annual $10,000 – $15,000 expenses. Battambang’s artists remain quite poor and self-funding was an impossibility.
Darren and Touch opened Jewel in the Lotus Gallery on Battambang’s Street 2.5 as a place to highlight Touch Khchao’s paintings and sculptures and serve as a multi-purpose gathering, performance, music and exhibition place for local artists. They purchased an old colonial shopfront that had been vacant for years and arduously transformed it into a beautiful structure. Regaining Battambang’s long history as Cambodia’s hub for art and culture is a daunting process, and they have had to close the gallery several times. Presently the gallery is open for private appointments with many of Touch’s lush paintings adorning its walls.
Some describe Touch’s work as psychedelic in tone but knowing her alters that impression. She plays with natural forms, abstraction, flowers, tendrils, and images that emerge from her challenges. Using bamboo sticks she re-invents pointillism with a Khmer flare, painstakingly touching tiny spaces with thousands of dabs of oil paint to create a bold and colorful whole. Paintings can take months to create and her process is meditative.
Meditation is the practice that has clearly brought her to a space of comfort, self-love, forgiveness, and clarity. Touch unabashedly gives Buddha and the meditative process credit for her well-being and ability to allow life to flow without commanding its direction or living with fear and anger.
Her willingness to delve into deeper spaces that gently confront where she came from, who she is, and what she is becoming is allowing her to live and create as an everyday practice – a practice that explores questions and gifts her with the coping skills to meet the experiences that inevitably come her way. Her newest works have a quiet bewitching quality to them. Touch is bringing into consciousness her own latent perceptions. She is experiencing the images she creates.
Who am I? Where are we going? What does a flower or a tree teach me? What am I looking at? How am I looking? These are the questions Touch asks herself and frequently uses as titles for her works.
When I am afforded the ‘alone’ time to sit with Touch and Darren (who is also deeply exploring his own spiritual healing practices) I experience a timelessness. Touch’s words and hand gestures gently empty me and the emptiness allows me to crystalize the shape, color, and texture of her art.
I depart from their company void of sentimentality, knowing that each of our lives will continue to present grave challenges…and remembering that somehow we will find the metaphorical way to stand naked and empty before life’s conflicts and struggles.
This, too, is the exquisite function of art.
Touch Khchao’s art can be seen at Romcheik 5 Art Space in Battambang. The majority of her sales are to international visitors. For a private visit to Jewel in the Lotus Gallery contact Touch and Darren through their Facebook page at Khchao Touch Art.