From the Phnom Penh Post, August 31
- September 12, 2002
Ancient art battles on
By Charlotte McDonald-Gibson and Vong
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
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
"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.