The National Museum of Cambodia is currently hosting a captivating group exhibition, in which all of the works are inspired by the Kingdom’s traditional Apsara dancers.

Running from December 9 to January 31, 2024, the Apsara Dancing of Cambodia exhibition showcases 14 works created by members of the Community of Artists in Cambodia, and is curated by talented artist Chhan Dina.

“I want Cambodian and foreign artists to see how important our Cambodian cultural arts are. What do foreigners in Cambodia understand about Cambodian cultural arts, and what would they do with them through the medium of their own contemporary paintings?” says Dina.

Apsaras, often depicted as abstract beings or deities, are renowned for their exceptional beauty. The term “Apsara” originates from the Sanskrit word denoting “movement in water” or the female essence of clouds and water. These celestial entities are commonly linked with water and are believed to reside in the divine realm.

The Apsara dance, characterised as a welcoming gesture, symbolises the host’s reception during inaugurations and extends hospitality to both Cambodian and international guests with warmth and friendliness.

“Through the mirror of Cambodian traditions and themes, we aim to create a unique collection of contemporary art,” explains Dina, while emphasising the intention to fuse Cambodian traditions and themes into a distinctive and contemporary art collection.

She says that seven Cambodian and seven foreign artists – from the US, Italy, France, the Philippines, Spain, Portugal, Thailand, New Zealand and Australia – expressed their creative ideas through the theme Apsara Dancing of Cambodia, with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the National Museum.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a mixed-media participatory installation titled A Gamboge Thread by director Carlo Santoro. 

The installation, crafted for the exhibition, consists of around 100 grammes of cotton thread dyed with natural Gamboge, generously donated and produced by the Angkor Ban Indigo Community in Kampong Cham province.

“This unique piece, resting on a steel screw and an element of a traditional apsara’s Crown, is presented on black synthetic fabric and mounted on oriented strand board, expertly framed by an L-shaped iron profile,” says Santoro.

What makes this installation even more remarkable is its purpose, according to Santoro, founder of the Metaestetica Lab. 

He said it will be donated to the Angkor Ban Indigo Community for permanent public display, a gesture that highlights the commitment to preserving Cambodian traditional knowledge of natural dyeing.

Patrons view the Apsara art exhibition at the museum.Heng Chivoan

Santoro said visitors to the National Museum are encouraged to support the efforts of the women dedicated to preserving this traditional knowledge. 

“These women, through their hands, dance across the warps, intertwining the threads of their lives and maintaining the rich cultural heritage of Cambodia,” he says.

The installation statement delves into the history of Gamboge, a natural pigment still obtained in Cambodia today, and its significance in the Apsara dancers’ traditional costumes. 

It raises thought-provoking questions about cultural identity and the preservation of ancient knowledge in the collective memory.

Santoro says the Apsara Dancing of Cambodia exhibition not only showcases the beauty of traditional art but also invites the audience to reflect on the cultural richness and heritage of Cambodia. 

His installation serves as a testament to the enduring spirit of the Cambodian people and their commitment to passing on their cultural legacy to future generations.

Dina acknowledges that that a display of culturally significant works was difficult to curate, as each of the artists – both foreign and Cambodian – was required to study the concept of apsaras carefully before creating a visual concept on canvas. 

Ultimately, she says that putting ideas and creating meaning in each work comes down to the talents of each individual artist.

Therefore, each of the pieces will serve as a document to show the next generation of Cambodian children about the pride of Cambodian art and culture.

In addition, Dina would like to see the Kingdom open an international museum of contemporary art to give hopes to local artists. 

Although a career in art rarely pays well, she explains that artists are driven to produce art by a deep seated passion.

“I hope that in 2024 we will see something new which supports Cambodian art. Our prime minister has seen and supported the arts more and more,” she tells The Post.