Bringing a touch of chic inner-urban Parisian ‘haute art’ to Temple Town
Siem Reap’s French-born art gallery, Batia Sarem, is steaming towards its first anniversary in December in fine style: on Saturday Nov 2 it launched a month-long exhibition of ten Khmer photographers in collaboration with Photo Phnom Penh, and then next month, on Dec 21, it will debut the work of celebrated Khmer artist Chov Theanly.
Gallery director Martin Phéline says, “This month’s photo exhibition is the first exhibition that we won’t be curating ourselves – Photo Phnom Penh Festival is entirely in charge. The show is called ‘Carte Blanche,’ and features ten Cambodian contemporary photographers selected by the Photo Phnom Penh Association. It is curated by Sovan Philong and Christian Caujolle, with the support of the European Union Delegation of Cambodia, and it will run until Dec 7, 2019.”
Then, to mark the gallery’s first birthday, the special exhibition featuring the work of internationally renowned Battambang artist Chov Theanly will be unveiled.
There’s no surprise among art critics that in its first year, Batia Sarem has made a mark – when the starkly-designed white-walled gallery opened last year on Dec 15, it immediately created a buzz and brought a touch of chic inner-urban Parisian ‘haute art’ to Temple Town.
British magazine ‘Country & Town House’ reported that the Siem Reap gallery is, “The Cambodian outpost of two contemporary art galleries in Saint Germain des Prés, Paris – a well-heeled area where seven-euro coffees are standard and the church fête raffle receives a Louis Vuitton handbag every year.”
The Siem Reap gallery was founded by two French residents, Yves Zlotowski and Lyvann Loeuk, who both own neighbouring art galleries that were established by their fathers and who, after meeting, both discovered they had a passion for Khmer artists, a passion heightened in 2015 by an exhibition of artwork by Sareth Svay at the Singapore Art Museum.
This sparked the idea of a gallery in Siem Reap, an idea solidified after visiting “very rare” exhibitions of Khmer artists in France, followed by gallery visits to Phnom Penh, Battambang, and Siem Reap, taking in the works of artists like by Yim Maline, Nov Cheanick, Chat Piersath, Theanly Chov, Kim Hak and Sovan Philong.
After three years of planning, Batia Sarem opened in town, named after the grandmothers of both founders, men who also both worked for and with their fathers.
“We used the names of our grandmothers, Sarem and Batia for our gallery in Siem Reap,” Yves said. “Lyvann’s grandmother, Sarem, a teacher of classical Khmer ballet, was killed during the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer rouge. My grandmother, Batia, endured anti-Semitism in Poland.
“So the two were victims of dangerous ideologies and we wanted to pay tribute to them. And yes, we both work with our fathers in our Paris-based galleries so family connections are important. Batia Sarem is a continuation of our parent’s work and passion.”
Yves says he and his father recently shared a great art moment by exhibiting Belgian artist Stéphane Mandelbaum, whose death at age 25 was macabre: he was shot, had acid thrown on his face to make identification difficult and his body was thrown into a landfill.
Mandelbaum, who existed in an orbit between genius and madness, was murdered in December 1986 because he stole what he thought was a Modigliani and when it turned out to be fake, the buyers killed him.
“He had a very tragic story,” Yves said, “But he was incredibly talented and provocative. We showed his drawings in several occasions in 2018-2019 and set up a catalogue. The reception was absolutely fantastic, and making this rediscovery happen and successful was an adventure my father and I shared.”
Before partnering with his father in the Paris gallery, Yves was an accomplished economist.
“I loved my job as an economist, it was interesting especially since I was studying emerging countries,” he says, “But I stayed 14 years in the same company, and before that, I studied economics for 10 years at university. So I needed a change. And I wanted to be close to the world of art.
“My first passion as a kid was cinema, and then I collected photography so step by step I got closer to my dad’s occupation. I think it is a great privilege to be able to live different lives in one lifetime.”
Yves has certainly started living a different life now that he works from both Paris and Siem Reap. He says he and his work partner chose Temple Town as the place for a gallery because they regard it as “the ideal ‘window to the world” for Cambodian art.
“We thought it was the perfect location: the city is green, not too big and not too busy, it has lots of visitors and the proximity of Angkor Wat makes it inspiring,” he says.
And Yves notes, the move to Siem Reap is paying off.
“It is an amazing adventure,” he says, “We show great artists and cooperating with them has been really fantastic and easy. The feedback from visitors and collectors has also been incredible. Whenever we are in our gallery, we are really happy because it has a special energy.
“Our first goal was to do at least four curated exhibitions a year with catalogues and we achieved it.
“We need of course to develop on many levels – we will work with younger artists, collaborate with other institutions, show our exhibitions abroad.
“But most important is to build long-term relations with the artists we believe in and offer them the best possible place to show their work.”