DEMONIC grinning monkey masks loom down at the visitor, some painted violent
red, others icy blue. Intricate designs on the faces are offset by towering gold
headpieces, creating a regal yet eerie effect.
Male dancers portray typical warrior monkey poses wearing some of the masks created for the exhibition.
These are hand-made masks
of the Lakhaoun Khaol, a form of Khmer theater, and are the main draw of a new
exhibition opening this week in Phnom Penh, at the newly renovated Reyum Gallery
(formerly known as "Situations").
Lakhaoun Khaol, or as it has been
translated, "monkey theater", is the name given to a famous section of the
Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Hindu epic the Ramayana), where armies of
monkeys and demons enact a vicious battle. Dancers mimicking monkey behaviour
spring across the stage in leaps and bounds, wearing intricate jeweled costumes
and the brightly-painted masks.
But the story behind Lakhaoun Khaol is
almost as fascinating as the dance itself, and, say the curators, is a key
element to the exhibition.
"There were two types of Lakhaoun Khaol," says
Ly Daravuth, Co-curator of the exhibition. "There was firstly what I would call
the high version, the court version which was performed at the palace. And then
there is the village version, the local performances, which have significant
While the court version is the one that most tourists and
those living in Phnom Penh will have seen, Daravuth and Co-curator Ingrid Muan
stress that the village variation is just as important, if not more so, because
of its ritualistic meaning.
The origins of the dance are unclear, but it
is certain that in the nineteenth century, the Royal Palace sent talent scouts
out into the provinces to find dancers who could perform Lakhaoun Khaol, in
order to create a royal troupe. Traditionally performed by men only (as it still
is in the provinces), the dance eventually became most popular when performed by
the Palace's female-only troupe.
In the village of Vat Svay Andaet,
where the dance is performed annually at New Year, superstitious meaning is
attached to the performance, explains Daravuth.
A partly completed marsk.
"The important thing for
them is that they believe that they must provide a good performance, and must
perform it at the right time, or great calamities will befall the
According to villagers, in 1966 a section of the play where
characters pray for rain was suddenly answered far too literally. Despite
scorching heat and dry weather for many months, in the middle of the performance
the heavens suddenly opened, drenching the participants and forcing the
cancellation for the rest of the seven-day extravaganza.
"And in 1964,"
adds Muan, "the first four days of the Lakhaoun Khaol were performed in the
village, but they then decided to take the rest of the performance to another
village. When they returned home, there was an outbreak of cholera, which killed
Since then the villagers have been careful to prepare the
play in exactly the right way, with special ceremonies created to appease the
spirits before the play starts.
"Villagers go into a trance, and call on
the spirits of the demons and monkeys," explains Muan. "The masks themselves are
believed to come to life, with the spirits inside them ... Gestures are made
over their eyes, as if opening them, and finally a mirror is placed in front of
the mask so that the spirit can see what it looks like, and who it
The exhibition features old photographs and descriptions of
village-based as well as court-based performances, but the real draw is a set of
Lakhaoun Khaol masks, 30 in all, commissioned for the show and created by master
lacquer-maker An Sok. Regular gallery-goers may remember samples of An Sok's
work being shown earlier this year in a traditional art exhibition at the
"This is a continuation of the earlier theme," says Daravuth,
explaining that the gallery now comprises the whole building rather than just a
small section, as before. "We have expanded, so now we are looking much more at
the mysteries of the whole performance, rather than just the masks."
exhibition is running from now until the end of the year, Reyum Gallery, Street
178, No 47.