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Rediscovering The Sacred City: Angkor at the Asian Civilisations Museum

Angkor_Exploring Cambodia_s Sacred City

If you’ve never had a chance to head to Cambodia, then take this golden opportunity this April to visit the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) and visit the majestic ancient city of Angkor for yourself in their latest special exhibition.

Kicking off the ACM’s Year of Southeast Asia, Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City. Masterpieces of the Musee national des arts asiatiques-Guimet sees the ACM partnering up with the esteemed Guimet Museum from France, specialising in Asian Art. Together, they’ve flown in over 140 sculptures, watercolours, drawings and historic memorabilia to form the exhibition and take visitors on an in-depth journey through the ancient city and let them know precisely why it’s captured the hearts and minds of people for centuries.

Phemeanakas. Palace of the Khmer kings in the centre of Angkor Thom by Louis Delaporte. Image credit: Musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet.

The ancient civilisation of Angkor first came to Western attention during the French missions of 1866 and 1873, spearheading a renewed interest in the cultures of Indochina when artists such as Louis Delaporte returned to the country with glorious watercolour paintings, depicting fantastic, exotic lands that only served to infuse imaginations with curiosity and admiration for the oriental.

Says Guimet curator Pierre Baptiste: “Back in the 19th century, people thought that only classical civilisations like the Greeks, Roman and Egyptians were worth looking at. There was a man who discovered all these beautiful sculptures and statues, at a time when Hinduism and Buddhism hadn’t come to the West, and he fought his whole life to get people to learn and understand the significance of the iconography or age of these pieces, because so many people just weren’t interested until he finally got a chance to show them at the 1878 Expo in Paris.”

A pre-Angkor sculpture greets visitors at the start of the exhibition
A peaceful statue greets visitors at the very beginning of the exhibition.

Although some of the works have been displayed elsewhere before, this will mark the first time any of them are coming to Southeast Asia. Highlights of the exhibition include rare plaster casts made in the 1800s by French explorers, including the only remaining record of a bas-relief scene destroyed when a wall collapsed in the 1940s, as well as plenty of statues of gods and goddesses from both Hindu and Buddhist traditions, simultaneously beautiful and monstrous, and altogether fascinating.

Says Pierre: “Perhaps the reason people found them so interesting is how these statues attempted to depict the perfect human body. Even if you don’t know their date or importance, you look at these sculptures and you’re in direct contact with them, and feels almost like a divine encounter.”

The artefacts are arranged somewhat chronologically, allowing visitors to see and experience them as curious French might have during the 1878 Expo, and watercolour paintings and memorabilia were aplenty, before delving into the heart of the city itself and full immersing visitors in the many statues that once lined the temples and ancient city.

Says ACM curator Theresa McCullough: “It’s a very important project for the Guimet, considering it’s the first time in 20 years they’re bringing such a big project abroad, and re-emphasises our strong working relationship with them, and theirs with Cambodia. The exhibition focuses a lot on the restoration of these works and how there’s a lot of emphasis on rediscovering the beauty of this ancient civilisation. We want people to walk in and go ‘wow’.”


ACM Curator Theresa McCullough with Radiating Lokeshvara


In addition, not only will visitors come face to face with the ancient world; they will also get a chance to learn about Cambodia in the present. One such exhibit would be leading contemporary Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich’s Big Beng and Ordeal, which sees the artist use native flora in Cambodia and Singapore to craft huge, hulking structures intricately stitched together with all natural material. Besides his work, the ACM will also be organising a weekend of activities from 25th – 27th May during their free ‘Angkor Encore Festival’, featuring Cambodian performing arts from apsaras dancers to sbek thom shadow puppets.

Ordeal, 2018, Bamboo, wood, metal, oil-based paint, India ink, 450 x 525 x 243 cm
Sopheap Pich’s Ordeal

It’s not difficult to see why years on, Angkor has fully cemented its position as one of the most magnificent civilisations to have ever existed, with its towering temples and masterpiece statues eternally filling us with wonder. Get a brush of divinity and a taste of art in its purest form with Angkor, and you’ll soon find that you too, might become a devotee to these awe-inspiring ancestors.

Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City. Masterpieces of the Musee national des arts asiatiques-Guimet runs at the Asian Civilisations Museum from 8th April to 29th July 2018. For more details, visit the ACM website here

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