The series of drawings follows one man’s solitary exploration of Angkor, all light and shadows like the man himself, intent on finding the most profitable and secure way to deface a monument.
Slowly he meanders, at times a figure among others along the archeological park’s shady roads, at others a discreet figure probing every corner for the valuable chunk of wall or piece of statue he could chisel off for a buyer.
Srey Bandol was as inconspicuous as the man he portrayed when he produced the drawings. He drew from morning to night, sitting in the heat of the jungle surrounding the monuments.
The series of 36 large pencil drawings, finely drawn in black on white paper, are on exhibit at the Reyum Institute in Phnom Penh through June.
Each artwork is made of countless minute lines that recreate out of light and darkness the mystery that the monuments and their finely chiseled stonework, ensconced in the jungle, never fail to convey.
A selection of the works illustrating the looter’s journey has also been published by Reyum under the same title as the exhibition: “Looking at Angkor.”
The name mirrors the title of a 1993 book on 100 Khmer looted artworks that was released as an appeal to museums and collectors to return the masterpieces to Cambodia, writes Ashley Thompson, a specialist on Southeast Asian cultural history, in the book’s introduction.
“Looting at Angkor” had been published by the International Council of Museums in cooperation with the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient.
Srey Bandol’s project started in 2001 when he spent six months at Angkor to depict the ceaseless looting that has now expanded to monuments and early burial sites throughout the country. He was hoping, he said, that his images would help make people love and care for Cambodia’s heritage.
As he developed friendships with villagers in the park, he grew to know “the first link of the looting chain,” which he showed in his drawings, writes Thompson.
Srey Bandol would draw on location from 7 am to 5 pm every day. “Sometimes I would do a sketch and draw later at home if I felt unhappy with the work,” he said. “At other times, I needed to sit down at one place for one or two days to draw the whole picture.”
The style the Cambodian artist chose for the project may be as endangered as the monuments and sculptures he drew, said Ly Daravuth of the Reyum Institute.
Srey Bandol took as long as three months to complete a drawing, he said. “Our era does not encourage the labor involved to bring those drawings to maturity—today, everything must be expedited.”
This art form that requires only pencil and paper but also a great deal of dedication may be fading away as Khmer artifacts also keep on disappearing, altering Cambodian culture in the process, Ly Daravuth said.
Srey Bandol discovered drawing where there was little else but pencil and paper available. Born in 1972 in Kok Ktuoch village in Battambang province’s Thma Koul district, he learned to draw at the Site Two refugee camp where his family arrived in 1984.
At Site Two, French artist Veronique Decrop had set up an art school, which Srey Bandol soon joined.
Although he used to draw on the ground or on scraps of paper he could find, his interest at first was not in the art.
“She truly loved the refugee children who had suffered both emotionally and physically from the war,” Srey Bandol said of Decrop. “When we met that person who used loving and kind words, it made us want to learn drawing in her class.”
Srey Bandol has created a series of colorful artworks on life at the camp that is on exhibition at the French Cultural Center until June 4. The exhibition is entitled “Chambak,” which is a tree with edible fruit.
But Chambak was also the name of a girl with whom Srey Bandol fell in love at the age of nine in a refugee camp—she later moved to the US, he said.
Using mixed media that include sand and glue, the Cambodian artist wrote the story of his experience in the refugee camp in Khmer script on the right of each painting and illustrated the words with abstract forms or stylized objects on the left.
Text and images blend in rich, warm tones with no bitterness, in spite of the camps’ harsh conditions that Srey Bandol remembers.
“We were at risk all the time,” he recalled. “We had no idea whether we would die, or when there would be explosions or fighting.”
In 1994, Decrop helped Srey Bandol and a group of her former Site Two students launch the NGO Phare Ponleu Selpak in Battambang. Located in Anh Chanh village on the outskirts of town, the NGO offers arts and music training and runs a circus school, a center for non-formal education, a school from first through ninth grade, and a home for orphans and young people rescued from human trafficking or other difficult situations. Srey Bandol teaches drawing at the school.
“Some people consider that one cannot earn enough money with a career in the arts,” he said. “For me, money is only a bridge and could not make me proud of my life, while I always feel that what I achieve with my drawings is an honor.”
Srey Bandol will marry in November a young woman who used to study at Phare Ponleu Selpak and who understands his love of drawing, he said.
“I don’t know if or when we will have children. Whether or not they want to be artists, I will not force them to do something against their will. But if they like drawing, I will teach and encourage them,” he said.