For thousands of visitors at the Freer and Sackler Gallery in Washington, 36 bronze masterpieces from Cambodia’s National Museum offer a rare look the richness of an ancient culture.
The exhibit, called “Gods of Angkor,” is the first of its kind in Washington—a show of all Cambodian works, explained curator Louise Cort. “We think this is the first exhibition of its kind in the United States.”
The bronze works have been on display since the middle of May and will remain here until January 2011, before moving to the Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Some of the bronzes date back to pre-Angkorian time, others from the Angkorian period. The 36 represent a small fraction of the 7,000 pieces housed at the National Museum in Phnom Penh.
“We wanted a small exhibition because we wanted people not to be overwhelmed by the number of things,” Cort told VOA Khmer in a recent interview. “We want them to be able to walk in and look carefully at each piece, one at a time, and find the piece they like the best and be able to look at it slowly and really carefully.”
The bronze works come from Buddhist and Hindu periods and are placed in three linked galleries.
Displays in the first gallery include a decorated urn and a bell, both of which were rare and highly valued items traded over long distances in Southeast Asia. Also include here are statues of a crowned Buddha, the elephant-headed Ganesha and a kneeling woman.
The second gallery is dedicated to the evolution of bronze styles within Khmer culture. Buddhist sculptures from the pre-Angkorian 6th to 8th centuries demonstrate early Khmer adaptations of Indian prototypes. Here too are seven diverse figures unearthed together in 2006 that reveal a dynamic interaction of early bronze sculptors.
The third gallery shows the distinctly Angkorian style that evolved from the 11th to 14th centuries. Objects here include a crowned naga-headed Buddha, Hindu sculptures and ritual objects such as an incense burner and rice ladle.
“These sculptures are beautiful,” said Drew Hoster, a US foreign service trainee who visited the exhibit. “I am happy that American people are able to see them.
Michelle Bennett, another visitor, said she was very interested in Cambodian culture.
“I want to go to Cambodia,” she said, “and once I am there, I will take my family to see Angkor Wat temple.”
Lisa Kalajian, who’s next job posting will be in Cambodia, said she was happy to see sculptures in the US.
“When I go to work in Cambodia, I will go to Angkor Wat temple and take my family there too,” she said.
Several events will also accompany the exhibit. The Cambodian-American composer Ung Chinary performed for the exhibit’s first week, and Khmer classical dance performance is scheduled for August.
And experts like John Guy, who specializes in the study of South and Southeast Asian art, are holding a series of lectures.
Following a lecture on Saturday, Guy told VOA Khmer the bronzes were sometimes used in religious ceremonies, but they could also be part of daily life, representing wealth and power for the elite.
The exhibition is a collaboration between the Freer and Sackler Gallery, which is known for featuring Asian art and culture, and Cambodia’s National Museum.
“We want people to be able to come here and have a more personal feeling of connection to the cultures of Asia,” Cort said. “We want to help introduce some to that half of the world and all the cultures that are in it.”
And, for those that miss the show or want to repeat it, there is a 160-page illustrated catalogue.