Context & Background
CAMBODIA: CAMBODIAN ARTS
Deeply woven into the fabric of Cambodian culture is its court and folk dance and music. It is through Khmer traditional performing arts that the mythology and history of its people is passed from generation to generation. Visitors to the great temples of Angkor can see the story of Cambodian people come to life on the bas sculptures depicting the celestial Apsara dancers, monkeys, and kings.
However, in present day this system has struggled under the effects of war, and Cambodian people now struggle to preserve the Cambodian culture. This struggle of conserving traditional Cambodian culture peaked with its attempted annihilation during Cambodia’s war in the late 1970’s. The decimation of the Khmer people targeted educators and cultural leaders in a systematic program of ethnic destruction that left well over one million dead and thousands as refugees to the U.S. and other countries.
Throughout the eighties and into the early nineties, ongoing political turmoil and economic instability plagued the country. In 1999 Cambodia experienced its first full year of peace in thirty years, which has resulted in increased international investment in the economically devastated country.
PRESERVATION of TRADITIONAL CAMBODIAN ART FORMS
For Khmer culture, its challenge in maintaining a transnational existence is to recapture material before it becomes completely inaccessible or distorted by time. Artists and scholars need to be able to sustain their work at multiple locations both in Cambodia and in the U.S. Early efforts to join Cambodia-based and U.S-based artists and scholars, who hold the knowledge of traditional Cambodian art forms, need to be reinforced and repeated consistently to insure conservation and growth of the traditional culture. Documentation of the art produced through these efforts needs to be completed, organized with existing resources, and made accessible across geographic boundaries.
In the context of a country at the beginning of reconstruction, the reopened Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh (RUFA) began the work of recovering the nation’s traditional arts by rebuilding its programs and gaining institutional stability. Faced with many challenges, including few resources in a severely handicapped economy, the work of the institution has been complicated by the effects of the recent war.
A number of surviving master artists from Cambodia were resettled in the United States and, today, have moved beyond the refugee period. Cambodian-Americans have achieved a level of economic security and have actively worked to develop and secure local cultural organizations.
Individually and through these organizations, Cambodian-Americans have made an effort to maintain and develop connections with their cultural heritage and country of origin. Yet the connections between these Cambodian-American communities and artists in Cambodia remain inconsistent and, as noted above, the situation for artists in Cambodia itself remains unstable.
The continued practice and celebration of Khmer traditions and culture, in Cambodia as well as in the U.S., illuminate the interconnectedness between Cambodian people across nations. Similar to other transnational people, Cambodians are able to transverse political boundaries and exist in a shared time, yet different space. However, much of the cultural artistic material that identifies and propagates this community has been dispersed. No longer is the cultural material of Cambodia residing in Cambodia alone or in any recognized center. And much of the non-written artistic material now exists in the United States with emigrant survivors.