Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Coming home

The Gods of Angkor exhibition is on its way home to Cambodia. This article ran in Voice of America Khmer edition from reporter Cheang Sophinarath:

It ran for more than a year, a collection of Cambodian bronze sculptures from the Angkorian period. On loan from the National Museum of Cambodia, the collection drew thousands of museum-goers, first to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery at the Smithsonian in Washington, and more recently at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, California. But now the exhibit is on its way home, its run at the Getty having ended 14 August. The project began with talks between the Smithsonian and the National Museum of Cambodia, said Jeffery Weaver, associate curator of sculptures and decorative arts at the Getty. That led to a Getty foundation grant to train conservators for the sculptures in Cambodia, but went further when organizers decided to highlight the bronzes in the US.

As a result, the bronzes have been here since May 2010, and in Los Angeles, near the Cambodian community in Long Beach, they received a warm welcome and send-off. The collection spurred a conference on the conservation of art, brief courses on Cambodian culture, art, religion and food, and a festival that included the US-based rock band Dengue Fever. The very last gallery course was called “The Glory of Angkor,” set up by the Norton Simon Museum, which houses a permanent collection of Khmer art, and the Getty. The first part of the course taught the history of Hindu and Buddhist art in Southeast Asia. The second went into detail of the Angkor kingdom. As students walked through the Getty gallery on a recent weekend, they were given details on each sculpture’s historic details, its value to the Angkorian period and its conservation history.

Melody Rod-ari, who taught the double-weekend course, said she wanted students “to recognize how important Angkor Wat is to the art history and the culture of Cambodia.” In her lecture, she also focused on the importance of mountain temples in Khmer religious architecture. Those who attended the course said it helped them understand more about Cambodia. And the Getty’s Weaver said, now that the exhibit is gone, he’s looking forward to more in the future.In a separate interview, Melody Rod-ari (above) is the curator of the Norton Smith Museum in Pasadena, and walked the same reporter through her museum's Khmer collection:

“This is a sculpture of Harihara,” she explained. “He is half Vishnu and half Shiva. Harihara became very important to the Khmer kings. These types of sculpture were made all the way up to the 13th Century, but they were very popular from 7th to 9th. I think today it is easy to forget that Hinduism was a very important religion in Cambodia and all of Southeast Asia, because today everyone practices Theravada Buddhism. But Hinduism was very important, so we have a lot of these earlier Hindu images.” She beckoned me closer. On the right side was Vishnu, holding a conch shell, a chakra wheel and a mound of earth specific to Cambodian art. “In Indian art, he does not hold the mound of earth,” Rod-ari said. “He holds the lotus flower and the club.” Harihara’s face had just half of Shiva’s third eye, with matted hair. “It is believed that Shiva does not like to take showers, so that’s why he has the dreadlocks,” she said. “This is not a very large sculpture, just about 26 inches, but in terms of quality it is very fine.”

Her favorite, she said, was a giant image of Vishnu. “He is larger than life and bigger and taller than any person that you would meet,” she said as we stood before the statue. “Something this large would have been inside of the temple. The surface of this sculpture is shiny; this is typical of what you would have seen during the Angkor period. This is because the artist wanted to make sure that the object was beautiful. “This is not just the image of the god,” she said. “It’s supposed to represent the real gods themselves, so Vishnu is supposed to be embodied in this image.” Vishnu held a ball of earth, “absolutely a Cambodian invention,” she said. “You don’t see this in any other place.” The 10th-Century statue had holes in his earlobes, a testament to his importance, Rod-ari said. “He probably wore real gold earrings and bracelets, rings, and necklaces and real clothes,” she said. “So these are the star pieces at the Norton Simon Museum."


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