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Aug 30 2021

Obituary: Srey Bandaul (1973–2021)

by Suining Sim

Portrait of SREY BANDAUL. Photo by Vila Hiek. Copyright and courtesy Vila Hiek.

On August 4, Srey Bandaul, an artist and educator who influenced generations of Cambodian artists, passed away from Covid-19 at age 49.

Born in 1973 in Battambang, Bandaul learned to draw in the Site 2 Refugee Camp on the Thai-Cambodian border, where he lived from 1979 to 1991 among other Cambodians who had fled the genocidal regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. At the camp, he attended classes led by French aid worker Véronique Decrop, who taught painting as a form of art therapy. Bandaul once explained, “To me, art is life. I think art has helped me a lot because I grew up in the war period and what I saw was killing and slaughtering. However, I could express and heal myself and deal with my feelings through drawing. It helped me find peace.”

In 1994, Decrop joined Bandaul and eight other students in establishing a community-based drawing school in Anh Chanh village in Battambang. Named Phare Ponleu Selpak (Brightness of the Arts), the school taught performing, visual, and applied arts in the hope of helping students both sustain their artistic careers and preserve Cambodian culture. Through Phare, Bandaul also spearheaded festivals, artist’s collectives, and outreach programs bringing art to marginalized communities.

Bandaul’s own work includes murals, which draw their inspiration from ancient Khmer myths and fill the campus of Phare, as well as paintings, sculptures, installations, and performances. For his first solo show, “Looking at Angkor,” at Phare in 1998, he painted temples and artifacts to mourn the destruction and looting at Angkor Wat during and after the rule of the Khmer Rouge. The project caught the eye of professor Ashley Thompson, who later helped exhibit his works at the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture in Phnom Penh, and published the project under the same title. Around 2006, he began looking at Cambodian sarongs and krama (checked, woven cloths) as art materials. He pulled these textiles and mosquito nets across landscapes and waters with his students before sewing and putting them in a box, which became the project Sarong and Kroma (2009), exhibited at Institut Français in Phnom Penh.

During his Asian Cultural Council residency in New York in 2011, Bandaul further explored incorporating sarongs, krama, mosquito nets and other everyday materials into his practice. He presented two sculptural installations comprising coke cans, cardboard, sarong, sandals, and a pair of mannequins at his open studio at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Arts Center. He also created the series Memory of Smoke (2011) showcased at Topaz Arts, for which he developed a technique of transferring smoke from an oil lamp onto paper or sculptures made from aluminum cans, wax, and wire. These innovations led to a series of fabric-based performance-installations, including Digestion (2015), which features a supersize intestine-like tube that weaves throughout a room, and Under Sarong (2015), human figures covered in sarong fragments and seemingly emerging from a pile of charcoal.

The Cambodian arts community has expressed its grief due to Bandaul’s passing. Artist Dana Langois, founder of the Java Creative Cafe in Phnom Penh, said, “He was a father-figure for many Cambodian artists and without him the contemporary art scene that we know today would not exist. Cambodia has lost a great artist and advocate.” According to The Phnom Penh Post, a private memorial ceremony was hosted on the Phare campus by the staff.

Before Bandaul passed away, he was working on a purple- and blue-hued painting featuring an ancient Khmer temple, statues of King Jayavarman VII, an armless Buddha meditating, and the floating faces of the Chinese and American presidents. His latest paintings will be shown at an exhibition at Silapak Trotchaek Pneik in Phnom Penh, slated to open on October 23.

Suining Sim is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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