Artist Eulogizes Gritty Romance of Colonial Battambang

A stroll through Battambang City’s streets treats one to the decaying grandeur of French colonial buildings, their aged allure giving the riverside town a certain worn-down romance.

Roeun Sokhom’s watercolor paintings on paper, “Old Buildings: French Period,” which opened Tuesday at Bophana Center in Phnom Penh, pays homage to that heritage.

'Street 5, in Front of Monivong High School,' by Roeun Sokhom (Roeun Sokhom)
‘Street 5, in Front of Monivong High School,’ by Roeun Sokhom (Roeun Sokhom)

“I’m interested in architectural buildings because these buildings are historical buildings that prove that our Battambang province is rich of colonial architecture,” the Battambang City native said.

The town, situated on the Sangke River, has historically been a vital trade and cultural hub. The city’s architectural growth blossomed after the French colonized it in 1907—many buildings still standing today date back to the early-20th century.

Mr. Sokhom painted the buildings—like the train station near Street 3 and Phsar Nat—as they stand today: paint worn, forlorn, some shuttered with wood panels or rusted corrugated metal. The direct perspectives are mostly of street level views, with the buildings obstructed by electric wires, shops or people.

“The other reason that inspired me to do these 15 watercolor paintings is because I like the style, the color and the structure of the colonial buildings,” Mr. Sokhom said. “I feel so upset to see these buildings have been knocked down.”

The 27-year-old artist was born in Battambang City’s O’char commune. He studied visual art at the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak, graduating in 2008.

In this second solo exhibition, Mr. Sokhom depicts colonial architecture for the first time. His having lived among the buildings gives the paintings a palpable intimacy.

“In early 2012, I created an art studio in Battambang in an old colonial building that I used as my workplace. I felt so calm and so relaxed working in that colonial building,” he said. He recently moved to a bigger studio space—also in a colonial building.

The exhibition’s curator, Roger Nelson, began working with Mr. Sokhom during research visits to Battambang.

“I was drawn to these watercolours because of their gentleness, their exquisite details, their unusual and idiosyncratic composition and perspective,” the Melbourne-based curator said via email.

Mr. Nelson added that Battambang’s history as a former Siamese provincial capital before falling under French protectorate is influential on the architecture rendered by Mr. Sokhom.

“That history lies beneath the surface of these paintings, occasionally appearing in the architectural details that blend Siamese, Chinese and French influences,” he said.

But the vestiges are deteriorating, with many colonial-era buildings knocked down or renovated with little regard to the original color and style, Mr. Sokhom said.

“It’s a big loss,” he said. “These colonial buildings are gone one by one and have been replaced by new buildings built without architectural concepts. I hope that my artworks will present to the people how incredible the style of these colonial buildings are.”

The exhibit runs until January 24, with an artist talk on January 23.

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