Michigan Museum Reveals Complex Heritage of Cambodian Art

New York — Six years ago, Nachiket Chanchani visited Angkor Wat for the first time. Inspired, the architectural historian began thinking about the relationship between the complexities of modern post-genocide Cambodia and the ancient temple complex.

Chanchani, an associate art history professor at the University of Michigan, kept reflecting on Angkor Wat, juxtaposing the temple complex against art created since the Khmer Rouge killed nearly 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.

During the pandemic, his thoughts crystallized amid worldwide suffering, anxiety and fear. “I thought that this art, both from the deep past and from more recent times in Cambodia, can teach us lessons of how to kind of stay stable, find some way forward,” he told VOA Khmer Service via Zoom.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art, or UMMA, one of the largest university museums in the United States, is now exhibiting 80 pieces of Cambodian art in a show guest curated by Chanchani in Ann Arbor. Titled “Angkor Complex: Cultural Heritage and Post-Genocide Memory in Cambodia,” it opened February 3 and runs through July 28. Featured artists Vann Nath, Sopheap Pich, Svay Sareth, Amy Lee Sanford and Leang Seckon, who live in Cambodia and the U.S., have pieces in the exhibit.

The Angkor Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, covers more than 400 square kilometers (155 square miles). Once a city of nearly a million people, the site contains some of Cambodia’s most famous structures, including those recognized worldwide after being seen in movies such as “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and In the Mood for Love.”

Playing with the dictionary meanings of “complex” such as “a whole made up of complicated or interrelated parts,” “a building or group of buildings housing related units” or “a group of repressed desires and memories that exerts a dominating influence upon the personality,” Chanchani saw how the exhibit could “allow us to think about these different layers, these different kinds of ideas of complexness.”

Today, “Cambodians regard Angkor Wat as a sacred center, a national symbol, and a site of memory,” according to the exhibition guide.

“Like Angkor Wat’s bullet-ridden walls, contemporary artworks from Cambodia and its diaspora bear the scars of a genocide and of related upheavals,” said Chanchani, adding that as a non-Cambodian outsider, he was aware of the exhibition’s sensitive nature. “It’s not as if this is something that happened a thousand years ago that you can just say, it happened,” he said. “The survivors are still there.”

Chanchani hoped bringing Cambodian art to the U.S. would console viewers.

But what could the U.S., one of the biggest economic and military powers learn from Cambodia, a small southeast Asian country, other than how to move on from painful memories and what the exhibition catalog describes as the current interwoven global crises of “public health, economic instability, authoritarian regimes, racial injustice and climate change?”

And how does one nation heal from an event like the Khmer Rouge killing nearly a quarter of the population in its quest to create an agrarian utopia for worker-peasants?

For some Cambodians, it can seem as if, 40 years later, the nation can barely move on or show off a new face when it is still being referred to in the context of the past suffering, especially on the international stage.

Reaksmey Yean, a Cambodian art writer, curator and researcher in Phnom Penh, applauded the Michigan show, but added it is a “cliche” because Angkor Wat and the Khmer Rouge have been overused to identify Cambodia.

“An exhibition about Cambodia, its history and culture is rare in the U.S., so I think it is important to have the exhibition to put Cambodia on the map,” Reaksmey Yean told VOA Khmer Service. “However, it is a cliche for me because it’s been more than 20 years when our civil war completely ended and there are so much in our cultures that can be shown.”

Museum Director Christina Olsen said the audience will have a chance to learn about the “distinct cultural and political [significance] of Cambodia” through the historical and contemporary arts by Cambodian and diasporic artists.

“At the same time, the exhibition invites consideration of today’s broader cultural, social and political happenings and fosters dialogue about the lessons that can be taken from the pain and resilience of the Cambodian people,” she added in the press release.

Svay Sareth is a Cambodian artist whose works in sculpture, installation and durational performance “are made using materials and processes intentionally associated with war — metals, uniforms, camouflage and actions requiring great endurance,” according to the Richard Koh Gallery in Singapore. Sareth’s interest in how Cambodia was affected by war and how its people are moving on has informed his art.

“I want the audience in the U.S. [to] see how the post genocide in Cambodia affect the intergeneration,” Sareth said.

Another work, “Full Circle,” by Khmer American artist Amy Lee Sanford, is comprised of 40 broken clay pots, repaired and installed in a circle. She is known for her “Break Pot” performance pieces where she would drop the clay pot from a height, then glue all the pieces back together, an effort to show how situations can change in seconds and even when repaired, can never be the same again.

Sanford said she hopes the Michigan exhibition will show that Cambodians “have a memory of some of the important architectural and religious structures … and that also that there are contemporary artists now doing things related to history and related to looking forward as well.”

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