Bilal Mohamed
writer. artist. curator.






He Worked for the Embassy

It was yet another thick and cloudless day in Battambang, when by the advice of the locals, I decided to visit some of the many art galleries this small French provincial town had to offer. Recognized as the growing art capital of Cambodia, with their high flyingly brilliant Phare Ponleu Selpak circus and art school, the Sangker Art Space, an intimate gallery showcasing artists from all over the world, and the various museums, studios, and art-cafes in walking distance from one to the next, Battambang gained a reputation for serving the arts.

The Khmer people themselves have been known to possess immense levels of commitment towards preserving arts and culture, whereas their history, like many who have faced great historical lengths of oppression, had been dented and compromised, in their case by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot Regime of the 1970s. Countrywide genocide, injustice and bloodshed infested itself throughout the country, torturing and murdering scholars, monks, Muslims, artists, and practitioners to maintain a dictatorship founded in ignorance. Contemporary Battambang was a breath of fresh air however, aside from the city’s history and my immersion in its unquestionable colonial influence; it was the first time I had felt ‘home’ in the country, providing me a sense of peace and contentment which I attribute to the small-town feeling it had. The city made way for connection between myself and the locals that needed not searching for, only my willingness to engage and consume in fateful interactions.

//

Before hopping onto my crimson city bike, I placed my point and shoot camera in the front basket to keep ready at hand for scenarios of intrigue that presented themselves to me. Synchronizing my Brazilian Portuguese playlist to google maps, I began navigating my way to the longing sounds and ambience of saudade, the likes of Rodrigo Amarante, Luisa Sobral and Gal Costa, as my musical pedaling absorbed the quiet heat of the city.

I had promised Darren to stop by his café that morning, and so upon my arrival to his plant overrun space, I set up at the bar as he brewed me a frothy turmeric and ginger coffee. While sitting at the counter, sipping up this foreign contraption of a beverage, it’s presentation bold and homemade, my enjoyment was disrupted by a rowdy Frenchman with a broken arm. A cartoonish character of sorts, who I quickly read as the unfortunate individual who had constantly been dealt a shitty hand, however, was never consoled due to the comedic relief the experience provided others.

Entering the café rambling about some local magazine’s avoidance of his gemstone shop, Darren’s smiley demeanor disappeared to be overtaken by physical annoyance. Keeping my head down, I stayed out of it, all but until the energy of their conversation finally died down, and so eyes drifted towards me by way of the room’s silence.

Mat, the Frenchman, immediately began to observe me. And with a scrutinizing look on his face, in his crooked glasses, sunburnt skin, and scruffy two-day shadow, I watched him wonder, now with a curious smirk on my own face, and then he spoke.

“You’re Ethiopian,” he suggests, raising his finger at me.

Not certain that he is correct but confident enough to state. I chuckle at the statement and nod my head. “Spot on.” I reply, and we laugh together loudly, reviving the energy in the room.

//

Romcheik 5 art space was the name of the museum locals demandingly suggested I visit. At what seemed to be the peak of the day’s heat, I left the main square upon my bicycle riding a short two miles through city and countryside to the hidden space. It was a bit further than the other galleries, though not a problem due to Battambang’s walkability.

Crossing the bridge which ran perpendicular to and above the Sangkae river, I coasted the streets, dodging tuk tuks, 05 Toyota Camrys and women walking their cows through the alleyways. After driving through the shifting sceneries into more countryside terrain and backroads, I saw a wooden sign with an arrow pointing left that read “Romcheik 5 Art Space,” and so I followed, to find a very bright building.

The building did not express its radiance due to the exterior palette, but rather the greenery which enveloped it, alongside the welcoming energy it compelled one to know. I entered the front door to find myself greeted by none other than the very artists responsible for the house works. And it was only when I asked whose show was on display, that they humbly informed me that it was their own. I, ecstatic to learn that I was speaking to the actual artists of this highly regarded museum, happily paid them my five-dollar entrance fee and was on my way to commence my viewing. Safe to say, this gallery was of no level of comparison to what I had seen anywhere else.

Before I could truly absorb the artworks however, I ascended to the second floor where the main gallery stood and came across Alan. Like many conversations begin between myself and anyone not American, Alan, without hesitation asks me, “Are you Ethiopian?” And once again, I reply with a smile informing him that I am indeed. The kind Frenchman replies, “I thought so, we were trying to guess,” referring to the artists downstairs as they had discussed my nationality in the small-time frame I had been there. He then goes on to say, in all casualness, “My son is Ethiopian,” yet, I hadn’t heard him quite well and merely smiled for he was exiting the room. Just then he remarks, “You go ahead and browse the museum, we can talk after.” And so, without hesitation, I did.

I found myself completely enamored and trauma struck by the vivid imagery and power showcased in the works. The subjects in the paintings collectively showcased an overwhelming sense of defeat. Figures with tears and exhaustion dragging their feet, stumbling, trying to reach some place of comfort and acceptance, exiting depths which lie behind them in memory of a distant homeland or familiarity. Their faces distorted, melting, even fading; their identity being stripped away alongside the vibrancy that comes with a knowledge of self. A knowledge of being – something those forced into bondage and shackles are required to overcome even when the reins are physically set free. That trauma always remains.

I spent just over an hour on the second floor, deprived of context, as I was sucked into the paintings, chewed and spat out with only more questions. With the artist biographies available, I decided to read them, learning that the five artists responsible, shared a history of childhood homelessness that began due to their being trafficked for work by their own parents in Thailand. As youth, using Cambodia for refuge, they would escape the confines of the harsh labor settings forced upon them, traveling together, living on the streets, and selling paintings to get by. Multiple times had they been discovered and sent back by their parents who received bags of rice and minute sums of money for their bondage, without knowledge of the conditions their children were being faced with. It was only when a kind Frenchman discovered their works did their lives change in ways one would never expect.

//

Standing just outside the exit, with the Battambang sunlight christening rays upon his forehead, his feet standing firmly on the sleek gray tiles mazifying the surrounding, taller than usual, evergreen grass, Alan awaited my descent to the first floor eagerly. Only because I was Ethiopian did he approach me with such interest, as he immediately reiterated that he was the father of an Ethiopian boy, and not before he could inform me that he was the owner of the museum as well. Little questions did I need to ask as he began to relay his stories.

//

In the early 2000s, Alan once worked as a diplomat for the French embassy in Phnom Penh. As he described it to me, Phnom Penh was in a much better era than its contemporary state, a time where the city was less populated, breathable, quieter, and the Chinese did not own everything. He had been given an assignment, one which he did not care to expound upon, that sent him to Sudan for a fairly significant amount of time. There were Ethiopian refugees residing there concurrently, and whatever activities Alan was engaged in there caused his experience to include the story of a refugee.

The Sudanese government was made aware of Alan’s residence in their country, and for some reason, had taken an interest in him. Rather than gaining intel with their own spies or meeting with him to discuss his business in their home, they took a rather interesting route towards learning about Alan. They made the decision to utilize one of the many Ethiopian refugees living in their country at the time, poorly training them, (I assume), to go out and spy on their targets.

They deployed a 15-year-old Ethiopian boy, to gain Alan’s trust, this kind Frenchman, and report back to the government on what he learned. Needless to say, the plan backfired rather quickly, as the boy truly befriended Alan instead, and feeling bad about deceiving him, told him about his situation. Just like that, Alan contacted the French embassy informing them of the situation in the hopes of helping the boy, and with nowhere to turn, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Taking advantage of the language barrier, Alan wrote fake papers in French which he claimed justified the boy’s ability to leave the country and his position as a spy. Together, the two of them flew back to France where Alan acquired adoption papers for him, claiming the child as his dependent and son.

That boy grew up with the ability to visit his family back home whenever he pleased. Now, 36 years of age, a French, Ethiopian and Swiss citizen, he currently resides in Switzerland with his family. Alan now able to travel and visit his son and grandchildren, can happily traverse the Alps overlooking their homeland.

//

Alan’s story was absurd to me in that moment. I could not help but laugh at how such fateful interactions could constantly fall into my lap, connecting me to their stories of complete awe. When he did not stop there, I could truthfully say I was not surprised. He continued on to describe the establishment of his museum, as he took me on a walkthrough tour of the hidden areas in this ephemeral space.

When Alan left the French embassy, he came across these five homeless youth painting on the streets one day and decided to have a conversation with them about their background. When he had found out about their unfortunate situation, the empath and activist in Alan, took it upon himself once more to do something to help. Investing his money into these extremely talented and disregarded artists, he began purchasing all their works, making the effort to sell pieces and provide them some income.

Not only did this tactic work, but he was able to make so much money off of their pieces alone, that they opened a gallery space to show and sell the works out of. A few years down the line, and each artist is making at least $1000 a month, the museum added in a second floor, and the first was turned into gallery space, studios for all five artists, as well as housing for them and their families.

//

If anyone has ever restored my faith in humanity, it would be the kind Frenchman, Alan, who not only used his personal resources and abilities to benefit the oppressed but made authentic culture and arts an imperative in the land which his own people had colonized. He made his home amongst their people, helping them rise up beside him at his colonial, white pedestal, instead of leaving them at the bottom. Never could I speak on a man based on one conversation, but the results of Alan’s efforts, as I had seen personally, were real. Those boys were trafficked and stripped of everything in their lives, that Ethiopian teen was manipulated, separated from his family and lost in the world. Alan did not need to do what he did, and whether it was genuine or for the appraise did not matter; the affect was as true for those boys, as it was for me and everyone lucky enough to hear their story.