Artist Hopes to ‘Marry’ Battling Elements of Local Society

Srey Bandaul is part of the generation of Cambodians who grew up in a world of war and conflict—their childhood spent during the Khmer Rouge regime in the mid-1970s and their teenage years on either side of the Thai border in a war that ended in October 1991 with the Paris Peace Agreement.

Now one of Cambodia’s most prominent contemporary artists, Mr. Bandaul was a teenager living in the Site II refugee camp in Thailand when the peace treaty was signed, triggering the repatriation of more than 300,000 Cambodians from Thailand.

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Srey Bandaul’s artwork entitled ‘Prey Lang, Jungles’ (Dana Langlois)

“We were told that we would come back to a beautiful country, a country where there was happiness,” Mr. Baudaul said. “We hoped to live happy and in peace.”

But decades later, the social climate still leaves a great deal to be desired, the 42-year-old artist said. “There is peace—we don’t have war—but there are a lot of issues that still have to be resolved.”

His yearning for harmony is why he has called his new exhibition, which opens tomorrow at Java Cafe in Phnom Penh, “I Want To Get Married.” The title is not meant to be taken literally, he explained, but refers to his hopes for Cambodian society.

“Getting married means living together,” he said. “Issues come up in Cambodia because people don’t talk to each other—don’t discuss matters.”

Since Cambodians have to live together, they should discuss and take each other’s well-being into consideration, as in a marriage, he said.

Instead, while open warfare has faded away, rights abuse and violence are part of life for many Cambodians, taking the form of massive deforestation, evictions and farmland expropriation.

To express today’s difficult realities, Mr. Baudaul has reverted to his first love, pencil sketching, and has drawn inspiration from famous European artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Salvador Dali for his depictions of contemporary Cambodia.

One dreamy scene features the Vattanac Capital Tower and the Canadia Tower along with the Royal Palace, and a van Gogh-like swirl of vegetation in the forefront. To illustrate Prey Lang forest, which is under threat from illegal logging, Mr. Bandaul borrowed the device of Dali’s famous melting clocks, setting them within a grey landscape of tree stumps with a storm brewing in the distance.

“I Want To Get Married,” which opens tomorrow at 6:30 p.m., includes an installation made of boxes that used to contain ammunition. At the opening, Mr. Bandaul will also stage a live performance with three Cambodian artists, during which the four will discuss cultural colonialism.

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