The artist’s final painting was a surrealistic dreamscape rendered in subdued shades of purple and blue depicting an ancient Khmer temple and statues of King Jayavarman VII and an armless Buddha in a meditative pose along with the faces of Chinese President and US President as planetary bodies floating about in space together.
This mysterious untitled piece is what artist and educator Srey Bandaul was working on when he was infected with the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and then lost his life on August 4 to the disease it causes: Covid-19.
“This artwork isn’t completed yet. It’s still in progress. The theme is modern despite some ancient imagery. My idea is that the US and China are always competing economically or with things like space exploration or whatever and somehow Cambodia keeps getting affected by it.
“The hubris displayed by these mighty superpowers makes me reflect back on the Buddhist proverb that even an empire amounts to nothing because in the end all people must return as ashes to the earth,” Bandaul said in a message to a friend.
A multidisciplinary artist, Bandaul co-founded Phare Ponleu Selpak – the Battambang-based organisation that specialises in arts education and trains the performers for their Siem Reap-based Phare Circus.
Bandaul served as the director of the Phare visual arts school in addition to regularly teaching classrooms full of students there.
He was also active as a professional artist whose talents for creating sculptures, paintings and installations were evident in the many exhibitions he took part in throughout Cambodia and overseas as well.
His untitled and unfinished painting has not been scheduled for display as yet, but another series of contemporary paintings depicting apsara figures and world leaders that he completed just prior to his untimely death will be exhibited in Battambang starting October 23.
The series will then be shown at Silapak Trotchaek Pneik (STP) in Phnom Penh later in the year, according to Yean Reaksmey, STP’s programme director.
“The exhibition’s working title was The Letter: Peace, Liberty, and Power. Plans may still change as we are waiting for some artist confirmations,” Reaksmey tells The Post.
Bandaul had a long history of exhibitions in Cambodia going all the way back to 1998 when his works were first put on display at the Reyum Gallery in the capital.
Bandaul was an inspirational teacher to countless students and revered in the Cambodian arts community. He published two books – Looking at Angkor and The Land of the Elephants – and had his work exhibited around the world in places like Turkey, Norway, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, Australia, Singapore, the UK and the US.
Bandaul learned to draw in the 1980s as a teenager in a refugee camp on the Thai border as one of the hundreds of thousands of Cambodians who fled there during the Khmer Rouge genocide.
His instructor was Veronique Decrop – a French aid worker who taught drawing to Bandaul and his classmates – including many of the artists who came together to found Phare Ponleu Selpak in 1994.
“To me, art is life. I think art has helped me a lot because I grew up in the war period and what I saw was killing and slaughtering. However, I could express myself and heal myself and deal with my feelings through drawing. It helped me find peace,” Bandaul once said.
The death of one of Phare’s co-founders – widely viewed as a creative visionary and celebrated as an artist – from Covid-19 at the age of 49 caused a great deal of shock and sorrow among his family, friends, students and the Cambodian arts community.
Phare received many messages of condolences and tributes from international artists and curators he collaborated with over the years upon announcing the sad news of his death.
“He was father-figure for many Cambodian artists and without him the contemporary art scene that we know today would not exist. Cambodia has lost a great artist and advocate,” said Dana Langois, founder of the Java Creative Cafe in Phnom Penh, where his art was displayed on multiple occasions.
Bandaul remained active in Phare to the end of his life, patiently teaching a wide range of visual arts skills to eager students year after year.
“Bandaul never had an ego. He would go around temples and even the market sometimes picking up trash and cleaning. He always showed a positive example of what we all needed to do. He was very eager to use his art to work for the community. He had a very gentle but stubborn determination to keep pushing forward,” said Osman Khawaja, executive director of Phare Ponleu Selpak.
Bandaul’s artwork reflected his diverse array of talents and he often made innovative use of materials or mediums, like his series of paintings Memory of Smoke which he created by developing a technique of applying actual smoke from an oil lamp to paper or the sculptures he made from aluminium cans, wax and wire.
“He was a very creative artist. He always pushed his students to think outside the box and use their imaginations. He also taught Cambodian art history and he shared his knowledge generously to make sure the next generation would not forget the fundamental elements of Cambodian artistry,” Khawaja says.
He also loved to paint murals. The very walls of Phare Ponleu Selpak are imbued with Bandaul’s art. One of the murals – Rahu Swallows the Door – was inspired by ancient Khmer myths and it depicts Rahu Chab Chann, which means “Rahu swallows the moon”, a Khmer-language phrase commonly used to refer to lunar eclipses.
Rahu is the king of demons who has no body – just a head – and he tries to swallow the sun or the moon. Bandaul added some creative twists to his mural and included some African artistic styles.
Morgane Darrasse, communications coordinator at Phare, shared some further insights with The Post about Bandaul’s art.
“When we see his life’s work we can picture his constant thirst for exploration. The common point I would say, about his lifelong artistic research was his way of using conceptual art, symbolism, folklore and a kind of poetic imagery to convey his life story and the greater story of Cambodia.
“His work portrays then transcends the fixed events of the dark past to explore the contemporary Cambodia that is full of possibilities and rich with universal beauty and meaning,” Darrasse says.
Darrasse says that Phare is in mourning right now and they will take some time to consider the best ways to memorialize and also continue Bandaul’s legacy.
A need to communicate was inherent to his vision and practice of art, so she says they will try to make all of his works available for viewing by the public so that new generations of artists will learn from his art just as they learned from him in the classroom for much of his life.
Khawaja says that one of Bandaul’s greatest wishes was for the visual arts programme at Phare to keep growing. His dream was to educate the younger generations in Cambodia so they would understand that the true value of art had little to do with money and to inspire them to become artists themselves.
“We want to provide the students with a complete set of technical skills, a strong fundamental and cultural knowledge of the arts, and the ability to understand, analyze and respond to a given problem with professionalism and creativity. We have become a big family, bound together by our passion for drawing and art… I really hope a bright future is on the way for the youth of today,” said Bandaul in a recent interview.
On August 16 a private ceremony in memorial of Bandaul was hosted on campus for Phare’s staff. After working remotely for the past two weeks, the Phare family gathered at their Circus Hall and then the visual art school’s courtyard to pay their respects to him.
Those in attendance made brief speeches and recounted stories from his life and experiences they had with him – all while following the government’s safety protocols for Covid-19, a sad reminder of the very thing that took Bandaul away from them.
Throughout his very active life in the Cambodian arts community, Bandaul always embraced Khmer culture and concepts and found ways to bring them into his modern-style paintings, in a way that never failed to trigger people’s curiosity.
“Srey Bandaul has passed away, but we must use his life story to inspire us to move forward. We must honour his legacy by continuing the work that he started and we shall measure our progress by how many people’s lives we have touched with his spirit of compassion,” Khawaja said.
Srey Bandaul is survived by his wife and two young daughters. Donations to assist them in these difficult circumstances can be made to ABA bank account: 002 191 255 (Ourn Chansophorn).