Chet Chan stands in front of an intricate drawing of a traditionally costumed figure.
A group of young art students gathers round to hear what the lively 65-year-old artist
has to say, 40 years of experience and knowledge etched on his face.
The Reamker mural at the Royal Palace has a battle of its own.
"This is the fighting between Hanuman, the King of the monkeys, and Indrajit,
first son of Krong Reap", he says, pointing to a vivid painting of a bright
green mythical creature, outlined in gold, locked in battle with an equally intricate
monkey character in an elaborate costume.
The piece depicts a scene from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the ancient Ramayana
morality tale of kings and queens, virgins and villains, and revenge and murder.
It is typical of the pieces to be displayed in an exhibition that hopes to document
the traditional art to which Chan has devoted his life.
The exhibition, which will be hosted at the Reyum Gallery in Phnom Penh, is unique
as Chan is one of only a handful of surviving artists with the knowledge of the painting
techniques associated with the Reamker required to keep this ancient art form alive.
Although numerous artists line the streets near the National Museum to hawk their
paintings of Angkor Wat to curious tourists, the techniques Chan uses are from the
16th century, and painstakingly detail the traditional costumes and decorations of
"All the paintings here try to please the tourists," says Chan. "Everything
has changed to meet the needs of the market. Nowadays, you can only see traditional
art at the Royal Palace."
Chet Chan, above, works on a depiction of a struggle between mythical creatures.
His passion for traditional art began when he first went to school and learnt the
"Once I understood the story properly, I started to fall in love with the traditional
costumes, which looked very beautiful," he explains.
His enthusiasm took him to the Fine Arts School in Phnom Penh, from which he graduated
in 1965. He stayed on at the university to teach, but when the Khmer Rouge seized
power in 1975, Chan went to Battambang to work on an irrigation project. For the
next four years painting ceased to be part of his life.
"During the Pol Pot regime, we did not think about painting," he says.
"We were merely looking at how to survive from one day to the next."
Chan returned to Phnom Penh in 1980 and took a position at the Ministry of Culture,
where much of his time was spent researching traditional art. He helped with a Polish-backed
project to restore the 100-year-old Reamker murals at the Royal Palace, but a lack
of funding meant it was cut short.
The paintings are one of the main tourist attractions in Phnom Penh, but have fallen
into woeful disrepair. They take up 2,000 square meters of gallery walls in the square
surrounding the Silver Pagoda, and depict the entire Reamker legend.
The murals were painted between 1903-04 by 40 Khmer artists under the direction of
Neak Okhna Tep Nimit Theak, the architect and builder of the Royal Palace. The fresco,
which is three meters high, runs for 642 meters, and is believed to be the largest
depiction of the Ramayana in Asia.
Environmental and human factors have taken their toll in the last 100 years, and
new restoration work is desperately needed to preserve the paintings.
a decaying battle scene from the Reamker painted almost 100 years ago on a wall at the Royal Palace.
Ingrid Muan, co-director of the Reyum Gallery, draws a comparison between the Ramayana
frescos at Bangkok's Grand Palace and those in Phnom Penh.
In Thailand, she says, artists work on the murals on a daily basis applying gold
leaf and maintaining the cultural masterpiece.
"People come to Phnom Penh and compare [the murals] to those in Bangkok, and
they're shocked," she says. "It is sad."
A spokesperson at Phnom Penh's Royal Palace says curators are concerned at the condition
of the fresco gallery's crumbling walls and roof, but explains there is simply no
money to pay the restoration team.
The preservation of the frescos is a matter that Chuch Phoeurn, under-secretary of
state at the Ministry of Culture, feels very strongly about. He would like to see
the return of a restoration team before irreparable damage is done.
"The mural paintings are very damaged by weather and water infiltration,"
he says, "and we would like to continue restoration work with international
That could begin as soon as next year, as the UN's cultural organization UNESCO is
currently discussing a four year program for preliminary restoration work with the
French Embassy. But the lack of traditional arts painters means the preservation
work needs to be done soon.
Chan's expertise means he is likely be included in that work, but for now he is teaching
at both the university and at a local Cambodian arts association. He is determined
to carry on the traditions of Reamker art.
"If I don't research traditional art, especially the Reamker, it will no longer
exist in Cambodia," he says. "I am concerned young people will no longer
get involved as there is no market they can sell to."
This is one of the issues the exhibition wants to address. By documenting the story
of the Reamker and the painting techniques associated with it, Ingrid Muan hopes
that understanding of both the epic tale and the techniques involved in creating
the beautiful paintings will endure.
"The knowledge of the story and its details is disappearing," says Muan.
"I want the exhibition to make people think about ways of incorporating the
Reamker into modern paintings."
Chan believes that the best way to keep traditional art alive is by creating research
materials for young people. A book published to accompany the exhibition will share
his knowledge for both students and art enthusiasts.
The book tells the Reamker story scene by scene and documents the characters and
their identifying features. There is also a step-by-step description of the traditional
painting process that students can use as a reference guide. Muan hopes young people
will find inspiration in the book and the exhibition.
"It's a wonderful story, so hopefully some of the wonder will excite people
and they will want to become painters," she says.
Chet Chan is a little more skeptical. He believes the intricacy of traditional Reamker
painting is daunting to art students, so they choose to specialize in modern techniques
"The painting is more difficult. It takes patience and time, and without a ready
market the young students are not interested," he says. "They think more
about earning money."
The lack of money and a lack of patronage for artists who wish to pursue traditional
painting is a major factor in its decline. Most Cambodians cannot afford traditional
art, so buy modern oil paintings for their homes instead. Most tourists are interested
in sculptures or garish modern paintings of Angkor Wat.
That leaves a very small market for Reamker art. Most paintings are bought by foreigners
and are taken out of the country, which means the few new remaining examples of the
tale go with them.
"Not many people know about traditional art, and prefer modern paintings. People
from the US have my paintings on their wall, but they don't understand the story,"
says Chan. "The market is only for foreigners. Even when government officials
want my art, they just take my paintings for free. They don't care about our living
conditions, and they don't encourage us."
Ingrid Muan shares Chet Chan's frustrations.
"I see some people [in Cambodia] in big houses, with nice cars and clothes.
They have money, but the idea of culture does not seem to interest them," she
The upcoming exhibition is a clear example of this: it was commissioned by the Kasumisou
Foundation, a US-based organization which supports arts and culture in Cambodia.
Both Muan and Chan say it is rare that such a commission would come from within the
country, a factor that drives young artists towards more lucrative modern painting
styles to support their families.
Muan hopes the exhibition will encourage Cambodians to take more interest in this
aspect of their heritage and realise that culture isn't just something in a museum.
For Chet Chan, Reamker art will always be an integral part of Cambodian culture.
Although its decline saddens him, it will not deter him from an art form that has
inspired him for 40 years. "Traditional art is my whole life," he says.
ï The exhibition, entitled Reamker, will be displayed at the Reyum Institute of Arts
and Culture from September 5. The gallery is at #47, Street 178.