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Restoring history through art

It’s a magic morning at the Bakong temple grounds, with the prodigious Khmer tower framed by blue sky, and a riot of purple bougainvillea blooming at its base.

Cows graze on rich green grass beside the mirror-surfaced moat, monks chant in their monastery and, in the almost ruined Prasat Wat Bakong, work hums as a team of restorers patiently re-render the many religious wall paintings.

While almost all of the restoration at the Angkor temples revolves around the ancient Khmer edifices, at Bakong there is also a restoration team working on 20th century buildings in the complex – the “working” monasteries as such.

Some of these monasteries in Cambodia are festooned with dozens of brightly rendered religious wall paintings highlighting often lurid scenes from the life of Buddha and the Jatakas (tales of the previous lives of the Buddha). Often, however, these paintings are overlooked or dismissed as kitsch, unworthy of being classified as serious art. Some of the more gruesome paintings, sort of Bosch-gone-Buddhist renderings, are often rejected as grotesqueries.

But that’s not the viewpoint of Restaurateurs Sans Frontiere, a cultural NGO established in 1981 that began work at the Bakong site in 2007 at the instigation of Dr Vittorio Roveda, co-author of the book Buddhist Painting in Cambodia.

Roveda is not a member of the NGO but he is the project’s co-director and, in 2006, he pointed out in the academic paper “The Bakong Murals: Their Importance Within Cambodian Mural Paintings Heritage” that, “Little or no attention has been paid to what happened after the Angkorean period, namely the post-Bayon period, especially in the pictorial art.”

Roveda, together with the NGO, contends that loving attention needs to be applied to the Buddhist paintings and murals that survived.

The NGO’s passion for the task at hand is personified by its Siem Reap-based French manager, Dan Ky, a former actor and film director.

Today, Ky sits at a makeshift table in the middle of the rebuilding rubble at Prasat Wat Bakong. With computer connected, he oversees his small team of Cambodian and Thai restorers as they bring back to life over 100 square metres of paintings, some so badly damaged that to a layman’s eye they appear impossibly ruined.

With antiquity being the big Angkorean draw card, Buddhist painting also often misses out on funding and interest because of its relative modernity – in 1960 it was estimated the oldest surviving Buddhist murals in the Kingdom were of the 19th century and many of these were subsequently vandalised by the Khmer Rouge.

The paintings being restored and saved at Prasat Wat Bakong are more recent – construction on the monastery began in 1939 with the final touches not completed until the 1950s.

Exactly when the murals and panels were painted isn’t known, but it’s estimated that they were done from about 1945 through to the 1950s, perhaps as late as 1955.

Many of the paintings are almost destroyed by water, time and abandonment but, through using techniques too complex to justifiably explain in this article, they can be saved.

Ky points to a patch of blackened wall that obscures a painting. The black is the result of candle smoke, but through a specialised sort-of-sand-blasting technique, the black residue can be removed without harming the painting.

The work is exceedingly painstaking but, centimetre by centimetre, the original paintings are lovingly restored.

“Lovingly” is the operative word, because in talking to Ky it’s obvious that he has great respect and fondness for the paintings that lurk under the patina of age and the residue of neglect.

According to Ky, not only do religious paintings tell the legendary story of Buddhism in ways that change through the ages, but also their style directly reflects the period in which they were rendered.

The Prasat Wat Bakong paintings are more lyrically landscaped and more subdued in colour than modern counterparts. Modern monastery painting veers away from landscape and adopts garish colours that smack of Indian influence.

Vittorio Roveda commented in 2006 that, “The contemporary and blatant display of images … reflects modern advertising campaigns in magazines and on TV which fit well with the populist attitude of modern Theravada ideology.”

Indeed some of the more recent Buddhist paintings in downtown Siem Reap monasteries mirror overblown Bollywood movie posters, but Ky also points out that the paintings of ancient legends include incongruous items that were relevant not to the period of the religious narrative, but to the period of the painter.

For example, the 1940s and 1950s ushered in the era of international air travel and, sure enough, one of the paintings at Bakong features an aeroplane in the sky.

“There are a lot of little touches like that in many of the paintings,” Ky says, “and no doubt in the next 10 or 20 years new paintings will feature mobile phones and motos.”

Modern military motifs feature in the Prasat Wat Bakong paintings – one work shows a troop of colonial soldiers wearing uniforms loosely modelled on the French, leading Buddha’s chariot. The painting also features an ironic incongruity: The putative French soldiers carry a Cambodian flag.

Two small paintings are unusual in that they show a monk wearing modern military medals.

Almost all the paintings at the monastery are the work of one artist and his assistant. The artist is Long Chum, who was born in 1925 near Battambang. In 1940 at age 15, he became a pupil of the Phnom Penh master painter Mr Som, who had been a soldier in France where he learned the art of painting.

In the 1940s Long Chum couldn’t afford to pay taxes to the French-controlled government and asked Mr Som to become his godfather and allow him to use his name. Hence, Long Chum became Som Chum and in 1946, aged 21, he began to paint the vihara at the Bakong monastery.

The current phase of restoration at Prasat Wat Bakong is slated to finish in May of next year. More work will need to be done after this but, as Dan Ky points out, funding is always the problem as the project is perceived as not sufficiently “sexy” in the donor world.

But, implores Vittoria Roveda, the images are to be saved because they are “the only few witnesses of Buddhist paintings remaining in Cambodia”. They are some of the very few paintings that show how 19th and 20th century Khmers perceived Buddhist teachings.

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