Tracking Down Deaf Artists in Battambang

BATTAMBANG, Cambodia – Standing by the counter on the ground floor of Romcheik 5 New Art Space, a gallery and compound where four young artists live and work, I felt the same way I did when I was in the fifth grade when I finally caught Carmen Sandiego. Squinting with effort, I tried to lipread Jacques Guichandt, the managing director of Romcheik 5, as he spoke to deaf artist Ot Veasna’s mother on the telephone.

Guichandt hung up the telephone and told me that I should go to the Lotus Gallery Bar, where Veasna would meet me. Guichandt explained that the Lotus was closed but going there was the best way to meet with Veasna. It was easier for his mother to communicate to him that he was to go there using their home sign. After hearing that, I wondered what must be going through Veasna’s mind and if he understood that he was meeting me, not his agent, Darren Swallow, who runs the Lotus Gallery Bar.

I directed my tuk-tuk driver to the Lotus and hung out on a bench in the shade, waiting for the mysterious deaf artist I had been hoping to meet for some time. After about 15 minutes, Veasna roared by on his motorcycle with his new, young wife on the back.

Veasna Ot, a deaf artist in Battambang, poses for a photograph. Photo by Erin Moriarty Harrelson
Veasna Ot, a deaf artist in Battambang, poses for a photograph. Photo by Erin Moriarty Harrelson

I first learned about Veasna when I visited a new acquaintance, Tin Lee, one of Cambodia’s leading contemporary artists at the Sammaki Gallery. Tin Lee and I met by happenstance when I was sitting outside of Bric-a-Brac in the old colonial quarter of Battambang, enjoying a snack with Morrison Polkinghorne, textile designer and Robert Carmack, author of five cookbooks, including the recent Gourmand World Cookbook Award winner, Flavors of Burma: Land of a Million Pagodas.

When Morrison introduced me to Tin Lee, we were both surprised for different reasons. Tin Lee was surprised to meet a deaf person and I was pleasantly surprised to be able to communicate in Cambodian Sign Language with a random hearing person. I learned that Tin Lee had worked as a security guard at Deaf Development Programme in Phnom Penh before moving to Battambang to focus on his art.

As I walked around Sammaki looking at the paintings on its white walls, Tin Lee pointed to a painting of a curvaceous figure in primary colors with big white eyes and tendrils wavering above its head and told me that it was by a deaf artist. He suggested I speak with Darren Swallow, who runs one of the contemporary art venues in the city, Lotus Gallery Bar, where Ot Veasna’s work was being exhibited at the time.

This section of a mural surrounding Sammaki was painted by Veasna Ot. Photograph by Erin Moriarty Harrelson

That same afternoon, I went to find Darren at the Lotus. We had a nice chat with a thick pad of paper and a pen. Unfortunately, I was headed back to Phnom Penh that day so I couldn’t meet Veasna. I left Lotus with a promise from Darren that he would hold some of Veasna’s work for purchase after the exhibit was taken down.

About a month later, I returned to Battambang but it was not as easy to find Veasna as I thought it would be. Tin Lee was busy teaching young children when I stopped by and the Lotus was closed, but luckily, the Romcheik 5 came through for me. I had gone to the compound to see more art with the hope of meeting Mil Chankrim, an artist I had purchased a series of paintings from in December through Romeet Gallery. Not only did I meet Chankrim and get a photo with him, his agent found Veasna with a few phone calls to Darren and Veasna’s mother.

I was able to talk to Veasna about his experiences as a deaf artist in Cambodia and I also met with his teacher, Srey Bandol, a founder of Phare Ponleu Selpak who has taught there since the mid-1990s. Bandol and I talked about his work at Phare Ponleu Selpak, as well as the different deaf people he had taught over the years.

Veasna isn’t the only deaf person who graduated from Phare Ponleu Selpak. When he was younger, Sopheak Houn left Krousar Thmey to train at Phare Ponleu Selpak’s, continuing a family tradition. Sopheak’s father was also a circus performer but he now works as a security guard.

In Battambang, I felt like a detective, tracking down people and making connections with people within the same social network. I met many interesting people, all connected by their work in the contemporary art scene in Cambodia and made a few friends along the way.

If you want more, follow this project on Twitter @ErinMoriartyH and on Instagram @erinmharrelson

Human Journey


Meet the Author
Erin Moriarty Harrelson, a PhD candidate in anthropology at American University, is one of five grantees selected from among 864 applicants for a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, which is the first of its kind. Moriarty Harrelson will travel throughout Cambodia for nine months, exploring the emergence of a post-Khmer Rouge deaf culture. She herself is deaf and will use video, text, photographs, maps, and drawings to document the lives of deaf Cambodians as they encounter each other for the first time and learn Cambodian Sign Language—a language that is still being developed and documented.