Paintings by an artist who identifies as a "Khmer-American" named "Reahu" have hit a justifiable chord of restlessness in Cambodia as noted in The Phnom Penh Post, 26 December, 2008, by Sam Rith and Cornelius Rahn: "Controversial Artist Fights Back".
The mysterious artist whose depictions of bare-breasted Apsara dancers and Khmer Rouge soldiers unleashed a public outrage has fought back in a series of pointed attacks on critics.
Without entering a debate on the parameters surrounding artistic freedom, open-mindedness, or "evidence of the strength of a culture", I write to give voice to the Apsaras whose sculptural bodies were defaced over 30 years ago; the graceful bodies and spirits of these deities who endured the red paint thrust on them by the Khmer Rouge in the temples of Angkor Wat. It is only now that these colours begin to fade on these deities whose seduction was always intended as a means for protection.
As a clinical psychologist-anthropologist, and sculptor, I try mostly to make sense of the processes by which Reahu justifies the "meaning" he attaches to his images.
You see, it is not the images, per se, that are at issue here. Rather, it is the vehemence by which he "uses", if not abuses the ancestral and culturally-embedded meanings of the Apsara.
Reahu's images have a sensual beauty to them; this is not in question. And if he had taken a different political spin, such as defending his work based on the "exploitation of youth soldiers" with no line drawn to the Apsara - the images could stand alone, literally, and the viewer could project her or his own meaning onto the work.
What disturbs me is the "born again" defiance and the content of the argument. In some ways, the quality of his defiance re-enacts the Khmer Rouge forceful justification for their means that broke down the ritual infrastructure of the nation, Cambodia.
It is one thing to have a vision; but the means used to justify a vision can be neutral, constructive or destructive. I remain unsure of Reahu's vision or the points underlying his provocation, but I can assure you that his means appear to be less than constructive to the restoration and preservation of cultural infrastructure inside Cambodia.
As a social scientist and artist, I am interested in how Crimes Against Cultures are justified, imposed and perpetuated in the "Name of Development". Are those with North American "beliefs" on artistic licence and freedom capable of perceiving the ancestors' cries? If they could hear the echoing atrocities, would they act differently?
Does Reahu have any "perceptual" knowledge of the symbolic meaning embedded in the image of the Apsara? Is he aware of the published work by Sappho Marchal (1927), who catalogued the diversity of headdresses, garments, stance, jewels and decorative flowers of the Apsaras (with nearly 1,900 images catalogued)?
I, too, produced art during my nine-year ethnographic formal study, in which I mapped the breakdown of traditional rituals by the Khmer Rouge between 1975-1979 in my soon to be released book (with National University of Singapore Press). I pen this Opinion based on my findings. I generated a series of ceramic, wax and bronze sculptures that I call Taboo.
However, these are three-dimensional images that represent the extremes taken by the Khmer Rouge that left people repulsed when they touched their own starving bodies - forcing them into the realm of the grotesque, the taboo.
But one grave atrocity I documented was the double-suffering that people endured by the breakdown of spirit protection by the Khmer Rouge - a nation enduring without spirit infrastructure - loss of monks, wats and rituals by which to find spirit protection for the living and the dead. Over the course of a decade, I was able to map the forces leading to Ritualcide (my term) that accompanied the documented Genocide.
In closing, I find it interesting that Reahu identifies as a "pure-bred Khmer" and "Khmer-American" in this website (reahu.net) and writes: "If this brings down the Khmer culture, then your Khmer culture is still under the Khmer Rouge." By pointing to "your" Khmer culture, Reahu demonstrates that he is perhaps American-Khmer over Khmer-American. That aside, I challenge him to rechannel his boldness - to use art in ways that defy the perpetuation of "ritualcide" and to assist in restoring cultural infrastructure as a "Cultural Duty of Care".
Dr Peg LeVine
Monash Asia Institute,