Artist Explores Ambiguity ‘Under the Sarong’

Srey Bandaul’s latest installation at Romeet gallery in Phnom Penh, which opened on Friday, is both a reflection on the ambiguity of life, and a tribute to Cambodia’s poor.

The installation, “Under the Sarong,” consists of sculpted figures standing among pieces of charcoal. The abstracted human forms with taut faces are covered with swatches of fabric. 

Part of Srey Bandaul's installation, 'Under the Sarong,' at Romeet gallery.
Part of Srey Bandaul’s installation, ‘Under the Sarong,’ at Romeet gallery.

Beautiful and unsettling, the work forms a link between today’s reality and Mr. Bandaul’s childhood, which was spent moving from one refugee camp to the next along the Thai border in the 1980s.

Up to maybe 1986, international relief agencies overseen by Thai military and police only distributed food to girls and women at the Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand, the idea being to avoid feeding potential soldiers in the Cambodian war.

Since Mr. Bandaul was not yet in his teens, his mother would dress him as a girl, keeping his hair long and telling him to speak with a soft voice so that he could get food coupons, he said Friday. Fabrics in the installation are reminders of the sarong he wore to pass as a girl.

“For me, it represents…the weak because, now, only poor people use it,” Mr. Bandaul said. “The rich have changed and don’t wear sarong anymore.”

Not wishing to use new fabric for the installation, he bought new sarongs at the market, then went to villages near Battambang City, where he lives, and ex­changed them for old ones.

The figures in the installation were framed with wire covered with mosquito net. Swatches of sarong were glued on the figures, which were later covered with natural resin. Their faces are slightly blurred, reflecting the never-ending exhaustion of people working from dawn to dusk to survive.

The figures stand amid charcoal used for cooking, which can dirty clothes if one is not careful.

“Charcoal can be a positive but also a negative force,” Mr. Ban­daul said. “When people think evil spirits are coming to the village, they trace a line on the forehead [of babies or young children] with charcoal for protection.” But they also say “leab thyoung,” or “paint charcoal,” to speak of a person one dislikes or who makes one look bad, he noted.

Nearly 41, Mr. Bandaul is co-founder of the arts organization Phare Ponleu Selpak, where he has trained some of today’s most talented artists.

One of his installations recently featured in the SEA Arts­Fest’s exhibition “Hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand” in London. Another of his installations is displayed in the exhibition “The Roving Eye: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia” in Istanbul.

Ending December 18, the exhibition at Romeet also includes a video entitled “Site 2” on a performance Mr. Bandaul staged at the refugee camp where he lived in the mid-1980s.

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