While the Freer and Sackler galleries showcase rare Khmer bronzes in an ongoing exhibition, traditional Khmer silks are also on display.
The silks are a bit of a mystery, at least to Kikuo Morimoto, the founder of the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles, who was invited by the Smithsonian to explain Khmer silk dyeing and weaving.
Morimoto brought with him examples of hand-woven textiles that include an important twill pattern, called “hol.”
“I am interested in the mysterious story of yellow raw silk of Cambodia as material relating to Cambodian textiles,” he said, in addition to finding the source of the unique weaving technique.
An artist from Kyoto, Japan, Morimoto said he started his project to restore silkworm cultivation in Cambodian villages and to preserve a culture of weaving that is similar to that in Japan. He especially worked with weavers in Takeo province.
“I met an old woman, she is still keeping the old-day [hol],” he said. “This is the same in Japan also.”
He moved his institute to Siem Reap in 2000, after establishing it in Phnom Penh in 1996, and he hopes to find a way to teach the old methods to younger generations. He now has five hectares of land north of the temples of Angkor, a region that was the heart of the Khmer empire from the 9th to 14th centuries.
His work earned him a Rolex Award for Enterprise in 2004 and an audience with King Norodom Sihamoni in 2007. The king praised the institute for providing employment opportunities to impoverished Cambodian women and maintaining the old tradition.
Louise Allison Cort, a ceramic curator at the Freer and Sackler galleries, said she admired Morimoto for working to preserve the environment as well as the methods.
“When I wear this piece, I know that it was made completely by hand,” she said. “Somebody grew the mulberry trees to raise the silkworm; someone sponged the silk from the silk cocoons; someone used the natural dye to make the colors; someone weaved on the loom; and all of these people enjoyed their work and felt that it contributed to the whole finished result. And when I wear this I feel like I am participating in that project as well.”
The products of the silk weavers' labours are already being sold at a shop above the Siem Reap workshops. They are also available at the Freer and Arthur galleries withing the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.