A pioneering Cambodian art festival gears up for its second installment
By Gemma Price
Early one November morning in 2011, 25 brightly garbed cyclists gathered outside Kinyei Café at the corner of Battambang’s Street 1.5 to give their lovingly decorated bikes the once over. A British couple made some final adjustments to their flower-strung, banana-yellow tandem. Gallery owner and artist Phin Sophorn entertained the goggle-eyed school children who had gathered around her bead-festooned bike frame. And Bo Rithy, then artist-in-residence at nearby Sammaki Gallery, tried to catch 40 winks over his handlebars, penance for the previous night’s reveling. The seashells adorning his hand-embellished bike and riding hat gleamed pearlescent in the early morning light.
The first-ever Angkor Art Explo, a trail-blazing, three-week contemporary art festival created by local and international artists, had kicked off one week earlier with a public party and a full week of performances, exhibitions, and screenings at venues throughout the riverside city of Battambang. Its mission, according to co-founder David “Jam” Ramjattan, was to “to bring Cambodian art back to its roots, the masses, and then the world.”
Now, everyone was gearing up for the ride of the year and an art journey in every sense of the word: a four-day, 175-kilometer tour from Battambang in Cambodia’s rural northwest to Siem Reap on “art bikes”—mobile bicycle installations that would transport the artists’ creativity beyond the studio and directly to the people.
Kinyei barista Untac Nem oversaw the distribution of lattes to give riders the oomph they’d need for the road. Some of us applied sunscreen; others, red-lace gloves and lipstick. And then we were off. Over the next four days we stopped at primary schools, markets, and villages for an exhibition of prints, live portrait painting, and performance pieces. We cruised past brilliant green rice paddies and innumerable cows loping nonchalantly along in the dirt, and slept in a mosquito net-strung local pagoda beneath walls and ceiling covered in luridly colorful images from Buddhist teachings. And all the while, the bikes continued to evolve, with their artist-riders and the people we met in each village adding their own personal touches until the procession arrived in Siem Reap at the height of the Bon Om Touk water festival.
This year’s journey was delayed until after the big rains, but in January 2013, the Explo will make another voyage across Cambodia’s countryside, this time from Siem Reap to Battambang. The launch party will be held at Explo co-founder Loven Ramos’s 1961 “art hotel” on January 31, with other events taking place at venues around town, including Raffles Park, which will host an art market featuring local food, craft, design, and performances. Then artists, facilitators, and anybody else who wants in will make their way to Battambang for more exhibitions, shows, and art activities before the finale—a street party right in the heart of the city’s old French quarter.
Originally appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Wheel Deal”)