Life in and in Spite of the Pandemic: Cambodian Artists Speak of the Time We Live in

This sculpture of a man entitled “The Mirror Man” by Cambodian artist Bor Hak is exhibited at the Pi-Pet-Pi Gallery282 in Phnom Penh. Photo: Liz Heeley.  
  • Michelle Vachon
  • December 17, 2020 1:59 AM

in an exhibition at a new gallery dedicated to works of artists from the provinces  

PHNOM PENH--At the Pi-Pet-Pi Gallery282 in Phnom Penh, a friendly character seems set to welcome people who come in. Outlined in black iron and wearing striped shorts, this sculpture entitled “The Mirror Man” by Battambang artist Bor Hak puts one at ease.

Still, there soon is a reminder that we live in the midst of a pandemic. As visitors use the hand disinfectant set on a table at the door in line with the Ministry of Health directives, there is an oil and acrylic painting to their right entitled “COVID CITY.” Done by Battambang artist Nget Chanpenh, the work features a stylized coronavirus: all arms and legs spread over the map of a city, it appears in dark brown on soft brown wearing a blue mask, glove and shoe cover hospital-staff style.

Painting by Cambodian artist Nget Chanpenh entitled “COVID CITY.” Photo: Romcheik 5.  

As for the other artworks in the gallery, they reflect life more or less as usual that we must cope with these days in spite of the situation, said Alain Troulet, coordinator of the Battambang-City artist group Romcheik 5 whose work is featured in the exhibition. 

This new gallery is in fact an outcome of the pandemic: a case of going where there still are visitors, expats and Cambodians interested in the work of Cambodian artists, he said.

Earlier this year, Troulet explained, “we thought things would get back to normal around June, and then realized this would not happen for who knows how long…and the only area in the country where there still is activity is Phnom Penh.”

Liz Heeley who ran the Kampot Art Gallery in Kampot City was in the same situation. “Just when we were about to start really breaking even or making a profit, COVID hit,” she said. 

So, having collaborated on numerous exhibitions over the years, Heeley and Romcheik 5 joined force and, on Dec. 12, opened in Phnom Penh the Pi-Pet-Pi Gallery282 with a specific agenda. “This is purely to support the Battambang, the Kampot, the provincial artists who are not getting the general public ear at the moment,” Heely said.

While most of the artworks in the exhibition are about life in general, the hardship COVID-19 has triggered is also reflected in the works on display.

Photo 3: Painting entitled “On the Way to the Next World” by Hour Seyha. Photo: Romcheik 5.

In Hour Seyha’s acrylic and enamel painting entitled "On the Way to the Next World,” which is done in muted tones of grey and mauve, people walk in a lake away from the tall trees on the bank, the surface of the water reflecting their image as skeletons—a gentle scene alluding to the misery many face these days.

Artwork entitled “Lok 1” by Mill Chankrim. Photo: Romcheik 5. 

Mil Chankrim’s watercolor entitled “Lok 1” depicts a man whose skin is covered with black and grey spots reflecting the torment of this man who is trying to stop smoking—a stressful undertaking at any time, let alone during a pandemic and the harsh situations this is causing for people.

But then Van Chhorvorn’s small sculpture “Fight for Life” featuring two snakes entangled suggests that, even before COVID-19 struck, life was hard for many in the country—Chhorvorn is one of the Cambodian workers who, a few years ago, managed to escape a Thai fishing ship on which they were treated like slaves.

Wood sculpture entitled ‘Fight for Life” by Van Chhorvorn. Photo: Liz Heeley.  

In his sculptures done in recycled wood, the flaws in the wood become part of the works implying that, whatever adversity one faces, it does not have to define one’s life.

Chhorvorn, who is from Battambang Province, is now often included in Romcheik 5 projects, Troulet said.

The sixth artist featured in the exhibition is Chan Phoun who illustrated a chapter of his life in a series of black-ink-on-paper works.

When he was 13 years old, Phoun lost his right arm in an accident in a brick factory in Kampong Chhnang province. It took four hours to drive him to a hospital in Phnom Penh and when he arrived, he said,” I thought I would die because I had lost a lot of blood.” One work entitled “The Memory” expresses his fears at the time: Skeletons are shown breaking through the floor of the hospital where he is lying in bed, set to take him away.

Scene by artist Chan Phoun representing his fear of dying while in hospital. Photo: Liz Heeley.

But Phoun recovered and studied art and drawing at Epics Arts in Kampot City, an NGO that provides arts training for people with disabilities. Co-founder of the artist collective Open Studio in Phnom Penh, he worked at Heeley’s gallery in Kampot City and is now manager of Pi-Pet-Pi Gallery282.  

Heeley, who will serve as the gallery’s director and coordinate exhibitions with Troulet, is Australian and a photographer by profession with an arts degree from the University of Melbourne in Australia. She was working as an editorial photographer for newspapers and magazines when she first came to Cambodia 15 years ago. She has been based in the country for five years.

This exhibition ends Jan. 10.

Note:  In view of the current COVID-19 community transmission in Cambodia, visitors to the gallery are asked to write down their contact information when they sign the guest book. Masks are also at their disposal if needed.

Pi-Pet-Pi Gallery282

23 Street 282 (near the corner of Street 63), Phnom Penh

Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 am to 6 pm

For information: tel.: 096-347-4397 -- Facebook:  

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