From the Phnom Penh Post, August 31 - September 12, 2002

Ancient art battles on

By Charlotte McDonald-Gibson and Vong Sokheng

Chet Chan, above, works on a depiction of a struggle between mythical creatures

Chet Chan stands in front of an intricate drawing of a traditionally costumed figure. A group of young art students gathers round to hear what the lively 65-year- old artist has to say, 40 years of experience and knowledge etched on his face. "This is the fighting between Hanuman, the King of the monkeys, find Indrajit, first son of Krong Reap", he says, pointing to a vivid painting of a bright green mythical creature, outlined in gold, locked in battle with an equally intricate monkey character in an elaborate costume.

The piece depicts a scene from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the ancient Ramayana morality tale of kings and queens, virgins and villains, and revengeand murder. It is typical of the pieces to be displayed in an exhibilion that hopes to document the traditional art to which Chan has devoted his life. The exhibition, which will be hosted at the Reyum Gallery in Phnom Penh, is unique as Chan is one of only a handful of surviving artists with the knowledge of the painting techniques associated with the Reamker required to keep this ancient art form alive. Although numerous artists line the streets near the National Museum to hawk their paintings of Angkor Wat to curious tourists, the techniques Chan uses are from the 16th century, and painstakingly detail the traditional costumes and decorations of ancient civilizations,

"All the paintings here try to please the tourists," says Chan. "Everything has changed to meet the needs of the market. Nowadavs, you can only see traditional art at the Royal Palace."

His passion for traditional art began when he first went to school and learnt the ancient saga. "Once I understood the story properly, 1 started to fall in love with the traditional costumes, which looked very beautiful," he explains. His enthusiasm took him to the Fine Arts School in Phnom Penh, from which he graduated in 1965, He stayed on at the university to teach, but when the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Chan went to Battambang to work on an irrigation project. For the next four years painting ceased to be part of his life.

"During the Pol Pot regime, we did not think about painting," he savs. "We were merely looking at how to survive from one day to the next”. Chan returned to Phnom Penh in 1980 and took a position at the Ministry of Culture, where much of his time was spent researching traditional art. He helped with a Polish-backed project to restore the 100-year-old Reamker murals at the Royal Palace, but a lack of funding meant it was cut short.

The paintings are one of the main tourist attractions in Phnom Penh, but have fallen into woeful disrepair. They take up 2000 square meters of gallery walls in the square surrounding the Silver Pagoda, and depict the entire Reamker legend. The murals were painted between 1903-04 by 40 Khmer artists under the direction of Neak Okhna Tep Nimit Mak. the architect and builder of the Royal Palace. The fresco, which is three meters high. runs for 642 meters, and is believed to be the largest depiction of the Ramayana in Asia.

Environmental and human factors have taken their toll in the last 100 years, and new restoration work is desperately needed to preserve the paintings, Ingrid Muan. co-director of the Reyum Gallery, draws a comparison between the Ramayana frescos at Bangkok’s Grand Palace and those in Phnom Penh. In Thailand, she says, artists work on the murals on a daily basis applying gold leaf and maintaining the cultural masterpiece.

“People come to Phnom Penh and compare [the murals] to those in Bangkok, and they’re shocked”, she says. “It is sad”. A spokesman at Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace says curators are concerned at the condition of the fresco gallery’s crumbling walls and roof, but explains there is simply no money to pay the restoration team. The preservation of the frescoes is a matter that Chuch Phoeurn, under-secretary of state at the Ministry of Culture, feels very strongly about. He would like to see the return of a restoration team before irreparable damage is done.

The Reamker mural at the Royal Palace has a battle of its own

"The mural paintings are very damaged bv weather and water infiltration," he says, "and we would like to continue restoration work with international teams." That could begin as soon as next year, as the UN's cultural organization UNESCO is currently discussing a four year program for preliminary restoration work with the French Embassy. But the lack of traditional arts painters means the preservation work needs to be done soon. Chan's expertise means he is likely be included in that work, but for now he is teaching at both the university and at a local Cambodian arts association. He is determined to carry on the traditions of Reamker.

"If I don't research traditional art, especially the Reamker, it will no longer exist in Cambodia," he says. "I am concerned young people will no longer get involved as there is no market they can sell to”. This is one of the issues the exhibition wants to address. By documenting the story of the Reamker and the painting techniques associated with it, Ingrid Muan hopes that understanding of both the epic tale and the techniques involved in creating the beautiful paintings will endure.

“The knowledge of the story and its details is disappearing”, says Muan. "I want the exhibition to make people think about ways of incorporating the Reamker into modern paintings."

Chan believes that the best way to keep traditional art alive is by creating research materials for young people. A book published to accompany the exhibition will share his knowledge for both students and art enthiusiasts. The book id tells the Reamker story scene by scene, and documents the characters and their identifying features. There is also a step-by-step description of the traditional painting process that students can use as a reference guide. Muan hopes young people will find inspiration in the book and the exhibition, "It's a wonderful story, so hopefully someof the wonder will excite people and they will want to become painters," she says.

Chet Chan is a little more skeptical. He believes the intricacy of traditional Reamker painting is daunting to art students, so they choose to specialize in modern techniques instead. "The painting is more difficult It takes patience and time, and without a ready market the young students are not interested," he says. "They think more about earning money."

The lack of money and a lack of patronage tor artists who wish to pursue traditional painting is a major factor in its decline. Most Cambodians cannot afford traditional art, so they buy modern oil paintings for their homes instead. Most tourists are interested in sculptures or garish modern paintings of Angkor Wat. That leaves a very small market for Reamker art. Most paintings are bought by foreigners and are taken out of the country, which means the few new remaining examples of the tale go with them.

"Not many people know about traditional art, and they prefer modern paintings. People from the US have my paintings on their wall, but they don't understand the story," says Chan. "The market is only for foreigners. Even when government officials want myart, they just take my paintings for free. They don't care about our living conditions, and they don't encourage us."

Ingrid Muan shares Chet Chan's frustrations. "I see some people [in Cambodia] in big houses, with nice cars and clothes. They have money, but the idea of culture does not seem to interest them." she says. The upcoming exhibition is a clear example of this: it was commissioned by the Kasumisou Foundation, a US-based organization which supports arts and culture in Cambodia. Both Muan and Chan say it is rare that such a commission would come from within the country, a factor that drives young artists towards more lucrative modern painting styles to support their families. Muan hopes the exhibition will encourage Cambodians to take more interest in this aspect of their heritage and realise that culture isn't just something in a museum.

For Chet Chan, the Reamker will always be an integral part of Cambodian culture. Although its decline saddens him, it will not deter him from an art form that has inspired him for 40 years. "Traditional art is my whole life," he says.

The exhibition, entitled the Reamker, will be displayed at the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture from September. The gallery is at 47 Street 178.