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Cambodia's Trauma, Rebirth Reflected in Khmer Sculptor's Work

  • Carolyn Weaver

In the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge murdered some two million Cambodians and sacked the country’s cultural treasure, attempting to exterminate all art, knowledge and religion.

The struggle by Cambodians to recover from that terror, and to recover some of what was lost, is embodied in the revival of the arts in that nation. Sculptor Sopheap Pich, whose work is currently on view in a solo show at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, is one among many Cambodian artists whose work has flowered in recent years.

Pich was 13 when he arrived in the United States, a refugee. Not quite three decades later, his show at the Met is a highlight of a city-wide Season of Cambodia festival, which also includes music, painting, film, dance, puppetry and other arts. After finishing his education in the U.S., Pich returned to Cambodia in 2002 to make his way as an artist.

In his studio near Phnom Penh, he began creating sculptures out of humble, local materials: the bamboo and rattan that grows all around, and that is usually used in furniture and crafts - not fine art. He was drawn to it by its simplicity and plainness.

“What it gave me was freedom,” Pich said in an interview at his Met show. “I didn’t have to worry about color. I didn’t have to worry about art history. I didn’t have to worry about sculpture, even, because it’s just a whole new territory.”

He works with assistants who cut and cure the bamboo and rattan, shave it into ribbons and help weave and tie it in place. Some pieces are embellished with bits of burlap from used rice bags and colored with paint made from clay, beeswax, tree resin and charcoal. There are dark, abacus-like grids, abstractions of equally dark history.

Many of the works are simultaneously massive and light, organically sensuous and ethereal. One of the most striking is a huge, bell-like flower in rattan, “Morning Glory,” whose sinuous tendrils extend nine meters.

Pich says it is an “almost reverential” imagining of the weedy plant that was a staple for hungry Cambodians during Khmer Rouge rule. “I often wonder why we still eat it,” he said. “Because - it reminds us, I suppose not so much of sadness anymore, but certainly when you think of morning glory, you never forget that time."

Pich has made several Buddha figures, semi-transparent and ghostly in their open-work weave. You can see through one placed in a field, to the landscape of Cambodia. Another hangs at the Met, its head and shoulders complete, but the strands of rattan unraveling below. The ends are dipped in red. This Buddha was inspired by a ruined temple near where Pich’s family lived for a time after the Khmer Rouge regime fell.

“I would visit the temple, but it was very dark, and obviously the temple grounds all broken and the sculpture broken,” he said. Inside the main hall, “I found a lot of broken Buddha sculpture, also bloodstains on walls and floors, like sprinkled with blood. And that memory never left me, and no one ever gave me an answer, I guess because I was too young to know.”

Pich’s sculptures are also part of a dance-drama by choreographer Sophiline Cheam Shapiro that was performed in New York as part of the Season of Cambodia festival. “A Bend in the River” is based on a Cambodian folk tale about a girl whose family is eaten by a crocodile, who becomes a revenge-seeking crocodile herself. In the dance, Pich’s rattan “crocodiles” come together and are torn apart - like the girl herself, and like the story of Cambodia in the time of the killing fields.
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