Essays

The Story of Reviving a Community Art Center in Battambang, Cambodia

Kids playing at Sammaki.
Kids playing at Sammaki (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

I arrived in Battambang, Cambodia, late last year via a 5-hour bus ride from Siem Reap. Battambang is hot, small, and there is nothing immediately impressive about the city listed on the tourist guides. There is, however, a burgeoning arts scene that I was determined to catch a glimpse of before continuing on to Thailand.

As a writer and curator interested in art outside or left of the mainstream art world, what I found was a dream. Within hours I met several artists and gallerists who went above and beyond to help connect me to their community. Phone calls were made, studio visits were arranged, motorcycles were borrowed, and in no time I was doing studio visits, interviews, and eating at the homes of artists. Recalling the cold indifference of gallerinas in New York City, I felt remarkably lucky.

Kids drawing and playing at Sammaki.
Kids drawing and playing at Sammaki

Of all the people I met and spaces I worked with, one that quickly stood out was Sammaki, a community art center in downtown Battambang that was being managed by Mao Soviet. Mao is a contemporary artist and founder of Make Maek gallery, which was just down the street and is one of Cambodia’s only Khmer-founded art spaces. Sammaki excited me for being a more accessible community space that could be for both children and professional artists.

Time and time again during my interviews and travels from Beijing to Mynamar I was told of the importance of alternative art spaces in serving communities that were largely outside of the support of larger markets. This was definitely true in Battambang, and Sammaki embodied the best of the community art centers I had seen.

I fell in love with Battambang and ended up quickly returning to stay five months. I was so exhausted with constant traveling to new cities with new languages that I craved to stay in one spot, learn the language a little, and really get a more in-depth look at an arts scene so different than the ones I’m more familiar with in Indianapolis, New York City, and the Bay Area.

Mask making workshop for kids from Battambang province.
Mask-making workshop for kids from Battambang province

At the time, Battambang had six important arts institutions, which for a town of 250,000 was very impressive. Battambang’s position at the center of Cambodia’s tiny arts renaissance is largely thanks to Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), an arts school on the edge of town that grew out of a Khmer Rouge refugee camp on the Thai border. After the Khmer Rouge systematically killed one quarter of Cambodia’s population — with artists and intellectuals as primary targets — the role that PPS has played in revitalizing the arts since then merits a book.

However, shortly after my return to Battambang, Sammaki amicably lost its funding from the local nonprofit Cambodia Children’s Trust due to difficult budget decisions. Afterwards, Mao moved to Thailand for better work — an all-too-common story for Cambodians in a poor economy. In one fell swoop, two of Battambang’s most exciting spaces were shuttered.

My experience in working in galleries, museums, and various publications prompted a handful of locals to ask whether or not I would reopen Sammaki. My Khmer language was quickly improving but my fluent English and experience in writing about and curating art exhibitions were most attractive — the market was, after all, almost entirely funded by foreigners. I said no many times.

Heak Pheary doing community outreach for Sammaki.
Heak Pheary doing community classes beyond Sammaki’s doors

I didn’t want to be a white guy running and defining a local art space in a community I was completely foreign to. While my Khmer was better than most immigrants’ (I prefer that term over expat) in the city, I was far from fluent. There were already misconceptions and hesitancies about the space’s foreignness amongst local artists. All of the original founders except Mao Soviet were foreign. But after a few weeks of nobody else stepping up, I agreed.

I became the artist-in-residence and something like a coordinator, and I was paid with a free room in the back. I told everyone who would listen, “This is not my space I’ve only just come here and I leave in two months, this is for you and people here will have to get more involved for it to survive.” The two-month time frame made me feel much better about my potentially problematic involvement.

I asked a lot of questions. What did they need? Did they want Sammaki to stay open? Why? What should I do? Do you want to help?

Yorn Young and Sastra Keo performing at Sammaki's four year anniversary party.
Yorn Young and Sastra Keo performing at Sammaki’s four-year anniversary party

At first I felt increasingly helpless. The local artists, arts professionals, and the community that has grown up around the arts in Battambang liked Sammaki and wanted it to continue. They saw it as an important space for artists to exhibit during or after studying at PPS — a space that could nourish the local art scene and be a stepping-stone to more white cube galleries in Phnom Penh or abroad.

“Sammaki” roughly translates to communal trust and aid, and is considered to be one of many things nearly destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. To that end, Sammaki had played an important role as a space for local non-arts professionals who weren’t trying to become professionals — a space for creativity, play, and free expression most art spaces were too exclusive to provide. These sentiments were repeated by many, but when I asked, “Well, who should run it?” or, “Do you want to help out?” Crickets.

In one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, asking people to volunteer or be paid little to work on a community project is an understandably hard sell. My doubts crept in. Was I, a white foreigner, just trying to keep a space open more for people like me than the local community? Is my concept of art spaces irrelevant in an economy like this?

Until then I had mostly been working closely with Khchao Touch, a local painter and former art teacher at PPPS, her husband Darren Swallow, owner of Lotus Bar and Gallery, and Chov Theanly, a local, self-taught painter. Finding others with the time, energy, and skill was proving harder than expected until I met local artist Puth Male and Heak Pheary, also a local artist and art teacher who had previously worked at Sammaki before going to study painting in Phnom Penh. Together we worked hard to set up a local board, hiring Heak Pheary as Sammaki’s manager and teacher, and Sammaki sprang back to life after the month-long pause. Since then, we’ve been applying for grants and searching for more stable funding streams.

Instead of an art show that features a conceptual theme or the best work of one artist, I tried to combine Sammaki’s community focus with its exhibition mission. The first exhibition after Sammaki’s brief closure was an open call for any and all Battambang artists to share one recent work. We wanted everyone to feel like this was their space. Fifteen artists exhibited and, with a high turnout, positive visitor feedback, and a healthy number of sales from the exhibition, we considered the show a huge success.

While I had been trying to teach drawing to kids from the neighborhood and foster creativity, Heak quickly proved how mediocre of a teacher I am. When Heak first worked at Sammaki, she often gave free art classes for children. After she left for school, Sammaki became more focused on professional artists with its exhibitions, residency, and workshops than on the community aspect. Together with the board, we sought to reverse that and recommit to the local community.

Puth Male and Heak Pheary working at Sammaki.
Puth Male and Heak Pheary working at Sammaki

Since she returned, Heak has had many kids show up for Sammaki painting and crafting classes on a daily basis. After noting the classes’ popularity, we teamed up with a local Peace Corps volunteer and brought village kids to Sammaki and Sammaki to them. With the new board supporting the space, and Heak on staff, we hope Sammaki can continue to be a place where anyone can come and be creative.

Now I’m halfway around the globe in Iceland preparing for an exhibition in a museum. My time at Sammaki feels far away, but I hope to return in the fall to stay tangentially involved. My hope for Sammaki is that it can become a self-reliant institution, but it undeniably remains an international space.

But maybe that’s okay. The world is increasingly connected and there are people like me moving between borders more fluidly than ever. My experience working with Sammaki taught me a lot about what it means to do this responsibly, mostly through making mistakes. Refusing to get involved on an international level would only stifle Sammaki’s potential benefit to the local community. Finding how to balance these connections and relationships to the benefit of Battambang is the challenge, and Sammaki continues to gracefully walk that line.

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