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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Art show on skids if no answer by May

Art show on skids if no answer by May

A controversial international exhibition of Khmer treasures risks being scrubbed

if a decision is not made within four weeks, according to a French art restorer connected

to the exhibit.

"Time is becoming tight, because there isn't even a year left before the start

of the exposition," said Bertrand Porte, a visiting official from the Réunion

des Musées Nationaux, who has spent the past month at the National Museum

of Cambodia waiting for official word to start restoring selected artifacts.

"I remain optimistic, but if this decision isn't made by the beginning of May,

there will be no expo."

The show - set to open at the Musée du Grand Palais in Paris in February 1997

and the National Gallery of Art in Washington in July 1997 - has been mired in a

political dispute over whether the most venerated Khmer antiquities should leave

Cambodia.

On Mar 9, First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh finally intervened in the

matter to break the deadlock between Van Moulyvann, Minister of State and Vice-President

of the Supreme Council of National Culture, and Nouth Narang, the Minister of Culture

and Fine Arts.

He sent them a letter in which he questioned the necessity to dispatch and restore

three of the most cherished symbols of the Khmer heritage: The Nandin Ox (7th century),

the Garuda Guardian of Banteay Srei (10th century, and Jayavarman VII seated (12th

century).

"Can the Kingdom do away - even temporarily - with works of art which are the

most significantly sacred symbols of its national identity?" the First PM asked

in his letter.

Both Moulyvann and Narang answered Ranariddh's letter within a week but since mid-March

there has been no further word from the Prince.

Ly Thuch, Director of Ranariddh's Cabinet, said the Prime Minister "should be

making an official statement in the days to come."

Moulyvann, in his Mar 14 reply to Ranariddh's letter, was adamant that the Ox, the

Guardian, and Jayavarman VII were the centerpieces of the Paris and Washington exhibits.

"This exposition will play a primordial role in the challenges which face Cambodia

today. We want to prove to the world that Cambodians are the inheritors of a great

civilization.

"The exposition would be made bland if these pieces are not are not included

in it."

Narang, on the other hand, in his Mar 11 reply to Ranariddh, was equally insistent

in saying that the absence of these objects would not diminish the quality of the

show.

"It would be entirely possible to make doubles of these works," he wrote

the Prince.

Narang again questioned the need to send them abroad in order to be restored: "There

state would make their transportation abroad a delicate operation, even though the

significance of the necessity to restore them abroad has not at all been proved."

Under an Aug 1995 agreement signed by Moulyvann and the exhibition's Western organizers,

150 art objects -from museum collections in Cambodia, France, and the United States

- would be reunited and displayed together.

The government will lend 96 artifacts, which are likely to venture abroad for a year.

In return, the Westerners have promised to restore most of the pieces that they are

shipped overseas.

Narang and his deputy, Michel Tranet, have lined up against Moulyvann to argue that

the most precious of the objects should be sent overseas because of their delicate

state and symbolic value.

UNESCO's resident representative, Khamliene Nhouyvanisvong, from Laos, struck a conciliatory

note on the debate:

"We Asians live by our myths and beliefs. These objects are considered by the

Cambodian people to be sacred and irreplaceable. We have to give Cambodians something

to believe in.

"Who would be ultimately responsible if these pieces were damaged? The Royal

Government.

"Do we stop the exposition just because three pieces are missing? Even without

these pieces, there would still be plenty of pieces left from the Khmer heritage

to show off to Westerners."

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