After Pol Pot

Culture - Sarah Murray travels to Cambodia to witness its cultural revival

It is not easy to grasp the depth of destruction sustained by Cambodian culture. In just three years, eight months and 20 days, the Khmer Rouge wiped out nearly two million people. Artists were the first to be targeted, and 90 per cent of the royal ballet's dancers perished in Pol Pot's brutally efficient attack on the intelligentsia. Phnom Penh - a thriving city embracing modernity with gusto - was emptied of its citizens; its apartment blocks were deserted, its pagodas, theatres, cinemas and museums used as pig pens.

As peace at last settles over Cambodia, the country's artists are engaged in a fierce struggle to restore what is left of their devastated culture. But it will be an uphill battle, because a gaping wound in the nation's self-confidence was inflicted by the barbarity wreaked against Khmers by Khmers. There was no wholesale burning of manuscripts, and monuments such as Angkor - the extraordinary temple complex built under the Khmer empire between the ninth and 15th centuries - were neglected rather than smashed. But Pol Pot's destruction of Cambodian culture was as complete as if he had indeed razed Angkor to the ground.

Most of the population lost at least one family member during this appalling chapter in Cambodia's history. But beyond simple statements of fact, little of the real trauma of "the Pol Pot time" is openly discussed.

This is a nation in need of healing, and the task of securing a future for Cambodian culture is an urgent one. Vann Nhat, whose paintings hang in the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, was commissioned to participate in a project entitled "The Legacy of Absence" at the Reyum Gallery, also in the capital. Instead of the gruesome depictions of torture painted for the museum, the artist submitted a pensive self-portrait and an image of a cowherd in an idyllic landscape of the future, which he describes as "the opposite of my paintings of torture and sadness".

Unfortunately, such self-expression is rare in Cambodian painting. The Reyum Gallery sits on a street of galleries displaying ranks of images of Angkor Wat; these are painted in lurid colours whose only variation lies in whether the artists decided to go for the daytime or the sunset version of the scene. In a small room illuminated by the greenish glow of a strip light, a young Khmer is working on something remarkably similar. A plastic stool serves as his easel, Thai pop music is his inspiration, and in a burst of efficiency he is working on two paintings at once - Angkor by day and Angkor at sunset. His studious repetition of what is essentially a bad postcard is partly a question of survival. No Khmer home is considered complete without a picture of Angkor Wat, and these pieces of Cambodian kitsch sell for about $15 - half a month's salary for a teacher or doctor.

In some senses, however, the Angkor paintings are not far removed from the tradition established by the French, who arrived in Cambodia in 1863 and promptly declared its culture to be in crisis. They set about uncovering and restoring Angkorian temples, building institutions such as the National Museum and the School of Cambodian Art - now the Royal University of Fine Arts - and teaching Khmers to reproduce traditional silver boxes, carvings and textiles. In Vietnam, the French encouraged intellectual life and exposed artists to works by such painters as Matisse and Picasso, but Cambodian artists were treated as artisans, and a thriving industry grew out of the sale of craft items to the hordes of Europeans arriving to visit "les ruines". "There was no politics or freedom of expression," said David Chandler, a leading Cambodia historian. "It was a cultural park; a kind of private ethnographic museum."

Indeed, the middle-class Khmers' acquired taste for French furniture and fashion was seen as decadent by the colonial rulers, who employed French artists, rather than the Khmers, to paint the most important scenes in temples and palaces, because they believed the Khmers were no longer capable of producing "authentic" Cambodian art.

"It was a weird dynamic," said Ingrid Muan of the Reyum Gallery. "The French were coming in and painting Khmer scenes because they believed the Khmers were doing it all wrong, which probably meant they were copying French paintings they'd seen in photographs. At the same time, Picasso was in Paris copying African sculptures and it was called modern art."

Given a history of being told what to do - gently by the French, brutally by Pol Pot - it is hardly surprising that little creative or innovative art is being produced in Cambodia today. "It's not just a matter of being stubborn and not embracing the future," said Fred Frumberg, an American stage director who is helping to reactivate cultural life in Cambodia. "It's a case of survival in a people who've had their confidence completely taken away from them."

But then, it is early days. And crucial to rebuilding that confidence is the restoration of what was almost lost. Pains- taking work is being done to record what dancers who survived the Pol Pot era remember of classical ballets, in order to resurrect works before they disappear for ever.

However, Frumberg is clear that restoration is only part of what's needed. His first move on arriving in the country in 1997 was to stage a play dealing with prostitution, and later he helped the expatriate Cambodian dancer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro to create a Khmer dance version of Shakespeare's Othello. "The main [aim] is to restore what was lost," he said. "But one mustn't forget that there's a whole new generation of young performers who are eager to find a new language for their own condition."

However, lack of financial backing remains a limiting factor. The Cambodian government spends almost no money on cultural development. Ironically, the ministry of culture's former headquarters now declares that the "National Committee for Disaster Management" resides within. With the former dancer Bopha Devi (the eldest daughter of King Norodom Sihanouk) as minister for culture, the ballet receives attention, but other art forms fare less well. At the Royal University of Fine Arts, the students still paint portraits of Lenin - not because communist ideology prevails, but because a chipped plaster bust of the Soviet leader is one of the few models they have to work from. About 500 students have to share ten rooms, and the ministry's sole contribution to stationery supplies last year was a single packet of A4 paper.

But money has started to flow in from abroad. With donors, aid agencies and non-governmental organisations swarming around the country, the arts are not being completely ignored. Organisations such as the Toyota Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and Unicef support various cultural projects. Academia is also a recipient of foreign generosity, and at Siem Reap, the town next to Angkor's ruins, the Centre for Khmer Studies has been established within Wat Damnak, the monastery of the royal residence.

While many of the academic efforts linked to the centre are likely to be focused on Angkor, Philippe Peycam, the centre's director, is only too aware of the sometimes darkening shadow of the temples, which attract foreign scholars, international restoration teams and millions of dollars. Angkor wields an extraordinary power over the country. Angkor Wat decorates every Khmer home, and even appears on the Cambodian flag. However, despite the national pride it inspires, Angkor's power does not benefit everyone. At the University of Fine Arts, for example, foreign funding supports the faculties of architecture and archaeology, but not the plastic arts, dance or music.

Indeed, at the Centre for Khmer Studies, with the World Monuments Fund as a founding donor, the original purpose was to train architects and historians to work on Angkor. However, Peycam has broadened the scope of the institution considerably, to embrace everything from humanities to social sciences. He believes that the exchange of views between Khmer and international scholars is crucial if the country is to avoid the sort of isolated nationalism that paved the way for the Khmer Rouge. "Cambodia needs to trigger interest among the population in debates," he said. "It's important to build a sense of responsibility in a community - this is part of establishing a civil society."

While few would argue against the importance of preserving Cambodia's ancient art forms and restoring its historic monuments, the revival of the arts has a wider significance for a country whose 800-year-old cultural identity was almost obliterated. "Few countries have problems that are as deep-rooted as ours," said Mao Keng, the director of the National Theatre. "Cambodian culture was lost for nearly four years, and national reconciliation can only take place once we have reconnected with that culture."

Sarah Murray writes for the Financial Times

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Democracy can be bad for you