Among the shrines and ceremonial ornaments strewn throughout the meditation room of Siem Reap’s Kesseraram Pagoda, a sight that would otherwise be peculiar to behold, given the venue, adorns its walls.
With the room serving a secondary function as an art gallery of sorts until May 31, the pagoda is hosting Janos Kis’ and Geoff Croll’s joint photography exhibition, Sacred … and Nuns Life.
The title of the project is something of a practical approach to explaining the subject matter depicted in the photos. The elegance and sense of purity Croll has captured in his work on the daily life of Buddhist nuns in Myanmar is juxtaposed with the rawer feel of Kis’ work with monks, many of whom are former soldiers, sporting skin etched with tattoos of sacred talismans and symbols.
Kis’ Sacred series displays visceral, close-up, black-and-white and colour shots of body parts decorated with the tattoos. On the exhibition’s opening day, resident monks explained to attendees the meaning of the ink in the photos.
The protective tattoos consist of two elements: geometric pattern (yantra) and symbols (mantras).
Each tattoo is specific to the person, as it is supposed to reflect the personality of the wearer. Likewise, different tattoos provide different protection. One gives immunity from projectiles, like arrows or bullets, another provides invisibility once a weapon has been lost, and one even provides protection from being crushed by an elephant.
“I’ve never seen similar tattoos in my life,” says Kis, whose interest in the protective inking was sparked during an earlier visit to Kesseraram Pagoda, where he saw the tattoos peeking through the robes of several monks.
In contrast, Croll’s series, Nuns Life, has a more gentle quality, yet is no less compelling. Croll’s work took him on a journey through eight different locations in Myanmar where he spent a lot of time with nuns, allowing them to get comfortable and open up to the camera.
The exhibition was first shown in January at Siem Reap’s 4 Faces Gallery. But Kis and Croll felt that, given the subject matter, there should be some involvement from the Buddhist community of Siem Reap. After Kis discussed this with the head monks of Kesseraram Pagoda, they came to him with the decision to host a showing.
Most of the proceeds will be donated to the monastery and according to Kis, “Our goal was to bring the project to a unique venue and make it a humanitarian effort to benefit the pagoda and help its disabled residents.”