Contemporary Khmer artists are on display in renowned museum for the first time in the venue’s history.
Phnom Penh’s National Museum of Cambodia is often considered as the ‘grandfather’ of Khmer art and culture, with objects spanning prehistoric times to the post-Angkorian Empire. “Histories of the Future” presents work from some of the Kingdom’s most prominent contemporary artists, in an exhibition seeking to capture the essence of Khmer identity.
“Histories of the Future” (PDF download) highlights fifteen of the best and brightest Khmer artists, alongside three Australian artists in a show “celebrating artistic exchanges between Australia and Cambodia”. The exhibition opened on 1 July at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh and concludes on 31 August 2016.
The National Museum of Cambodia is one of the country’s most revered institutions. Completed in 1920, the museum houses the Royal University of Fine Art’s Department of Archaeology and from the very beginning, has been a storehouse of “Cambodia’s cultural and artistic treasures”. This legacy continues, with over 14,000 bronze, ceramic, stone and wood objects, whose preservation and exhibition, according to the venue’s website, “aims to educate and inspire”:
The National Museum of Cambodia houses one of the world’s greatest collections of Khmer cultural material including sculpture, ceramics and ethnographic objects from the prehistoric, pre-Angkorian, Angkorian and post-Angkorian periods.
The Museum promotes awareness, understanding and appreciation of Cambodia’s heritage through the presentation, conservation, safekeeping, interpretation and acquisition of Cambodian cultural material. It aims to educate and inspire its visitors.
The venue was designed by George Groslier (1887-1945), a Frenchmen born in Phnom Penh, in what was then part of French Indochina. As a young man, Groslier spent time in France and eventually served in the French Army during World War I. After the war, Groslier ultimately returned to Phnom Penh, where he was tasked with establishing an art museum and art school focused on traditional Khmer culture.
The building is modelled on a reconstruction of the palace that once stood on the Elephant Terrace at Angkor Thom. The edifice is considered to be an example of “traditional Khmer” architecture and was built by local artisans and their pupils, who were specifically chosen to construct the museum’s galleries, doors and environs. Groslier also insisted that the art school be run by Cambodians and not their colonial masters.
Within this esteemed cultural institution, a group of contemporary Khmer artists have been invited to show in the museum’s open air galleries as part of the “Histories of the Future” exhibition. The show is curated by gallerist Dana Langlois. Much like the museum’s founder, Langlois seeks to create and provide platforms for Khmer artists. To date, Langlois has founded JavaArts, Sala Artspace (2006-07), Our City Festival (2008) and is currently working on a “Floating Art Centre” called THE BOAT.
As Langlois told Art Radar, this unique show will hopefully provide more opportunities for the predominantly young Khmer community:
This exhibition is important because it brings together artists that are largely shown abroad and placing their work in a respected Cambodian institution. It will, I hope, do two things: introduce a new, young public to contemporary Cambodian art and be a model for Cambodian institutions and authorities to invest more in developing its living culture.
Langlois, who has been based in Phnom Penh since 1998, has experienced Cambodia’s dramatically changing urban and politically-charged landscape firsthand. The curator hopes that this exhibition will be the first of many, as Langlois relayed to Art Radar, providing exposure and opportunity to living artists:
In fact, it’s partly due to the fact that many Cambodian artists are very visible in international events that have made an exhibition of contemporary art attractive to the museum. When I first met with Mr. Kong Vireak, the Director of the National Museum, he was very enthusiastic about the exhibition. When I showed him the artworks and came to Anida Yoeu Ali’s Buddhist Bug, he immediately said, “I know that work – I love that work!” So for me that’s a very positive indication that there are possibilities for future projects like this.
Selection of the pieces for the exhibition was based on over a decade of “engagement” between Australia and Cambodia and, according to the programme for the exhibition, offer a “unique opportunity”:
Histories of the Future is a groundbreaking exhibition that places some of Cambodia’s most prominent contemporary artists in the National Museum of Cambodia. Sponsored by the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh, all the works in the exhibition have in some way been supported by Australian art institutions. It is intended to celebrate the engagement between Australia and Cambodia through art and culture. In doing so it offers the unique opportunity to bring together contemporary Cambodian artworks in one exhibition, to be presented in a well-recognized Cambodian institution, which Australian Aid helped restore. Moreover, it is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of art institutions, conservation and developing historical narratives.
Themes weaving the selections together include the clarification of Khmer identity through the lens of contemporary history, while exploring the country’s cultural and spiritual legacies, as the country continues to emerge from the shadows of the country’s dark years of genocide under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, where an estimated 1.7 to 2.5 million people perished between 1975 and 1979.
Beyond the show’s themes, lie a single narrative prevalent in contemporary Khmer society – the collision of the ancient past with the very recent, very violent past. The curator’s exhibition statement reads:
The multidisciplinary exhibition features the works of eighteen artists that engage with social, spiritual, cultural and economic tensions as Cambodia emerged from a century of conflicts. The juxtaposition of recent history and ancient past in a museum of antiquities provides a unique lens to view this exhibition of intersecting themes.
According to the same missive, exhibition highlights include work by 15 Khmer artists, several of whom are recognised internationally:
- Anida Yoeu Ali
- Samnang Khvay
- Hak Kim
- Vollak Kong
- Marine Ky
- Seckon Leang
- Sokchanlina Lim
- Sokhorn Meas
- Sophal Neak
- Kavich Neang
- Sopheap Pich
- Amy Lee Sanford
- Bandaul Srey
- Ken Svay
- Sareth Svay
With three notable Australian artists rounding out the show:
Seeking the “I” in identity
Uncovering the “complexities” surrounding memory, identity and recent history are discussed in some of the more memorable pieces in the exhibition. Performance and installation artist Amy Lee Sanford‘s piece “Cascade” is a beautiful illustration of “interrogating the emotional landscape of loss and healing”. The artist painstakingly put together a puzzle of blocks that recreate a letter her Khmer father sent to his American wife shortly before dying at the hands of Pol Pot’s ruthless regime.
In an interview with Art Radar, Sanford described why “repackaging the past” is important for her:
Regarding the physical process of putting pieces back together to form a whole, a new whole, or a different whole, I believe the metaphor of “repackaging the past” is relevant to all present times, in that I feel it is important to deal with the broken pieces of one’s past in order to live in the present. If we choose to not shift, change, evolve the broken pieces of the past, those pieces can become stuck, or glued, in place, like a barnacle on a rock, and the more time that passes without attempting to change this stasis, the more difficult it can be to live in the present time.
Legacies of the past
Spirituality and the deep roots of Cambodia’s ancient cultural legacy appear throughout the exhibition. In a new piece by artist Seckon Leang, three figures fashioned from traditional puppets take the shape of recently repatriated stolen artefacts, doubling as “refugees returning to their homeland”. Modern imagery complicates what the three iconic images may reference in modern-day society.
In another piece called Into Dreamland, performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali becomes a saffron coloured insect, also known as The Buddhist Bug – allowing the artist to respond to her “spiritual turmoil between Islam and Buddhism” and examine what “bugs” her about religion.
A final prevalent theme is represented by the widespread changes that rapid urban development has wrought upon Cambodia in recent years. Collaborative project “The Hawker’s Song” by Australian artists Keith Deverell and Sue McCauley team up with Khmer artists Sokhorn Meas and Bandaul Srey to examine how rural street vendor traditions are being replaced by modernised versions.
Regardless of the country’s past, the future of contemporary art in Cambodia is alive and promising, according to Langlois. As the curator told Art Radar, a “creative energy is bubbling up in many areas” inside the Kingdom. And if Langlois has anything to say about it, one day in the not too distant future, perhaps some of the creations found in “Histories of the Future” will indeed be embraced, as noted in the curator’s exhibition statement, as historical artifacts:
While the museum is dedicated to the historization of Cambodia’s pre-modern culture, the current exhibition calls attention to ideas and expressions of living artists. The title Histories of the Future playfully suggests that the artworks may one day form part of Cambodia’s cultural history. It envisions a future when a Cambodian art museum might house today’s works of art as historical artifacts. By compressing divergent timelines under one roof, the exhibition serves as a catalyst to continue the tradition of patronage and to reflect on aesthetics, culture, and society in Cambodia.
- Inter-generational project reveals complexities of Cambodian diaspora: Pete Pin – interview – November 2015 – photographer brings project to select cities in the United States to bring together Khmer diaspora communities
- Hugo Boss Asian Art 2015 shortlist reveals striking new artists – June 2015 – Major new Asian art prize launches second edition with handful of emerging artists from Southeast Asia and Greater China
- Cambodian performance art: Art Radar’s top 4 posts – July 2014 – The best articles about contemporary Khmer performance art as reported by Art Radar
- Repairing what was broken: Amy Lee Sanford and Cambodian art today – interview – June 2013 – Performance artist Amy Lee Sanford breaks the present, so she can rebuild the past
- “It takes a village to raise a bug”: Cambodian performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali – interview – March 2013 – 11th Sovereign Asian Art Prize winner Anida Yoeu Ali talks about what bugs her and the impetus behind her most well-known creation
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