At a Glance
Wat Painting in Cambodia, an art exhibit at Reyum Institute. Through July.
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Whether it’s the capital’s towering Wat Phnom, or the glittering grace of the Silver Pagoda, sightseers in Cambodia are undoubtedly bound for a traditional Buddhist wat.
In a country 90 percent Buddhist, the wat has been a centerpiece of Cambodian culture since the 11th Century. For rural communities, the wat, sometimes called a pagoda, remains an essential provider of education, care-giving, and, of course, religion.
Now, an exhibit at the Reyum Institute in Phnom Penh showcases the brilliant, and at times bizarre, paintings that adorn nearly every wat. “Wat Painting in Cambodia,” and an accompanying book are the first public collection of these vibrant, and increasingly rare, cultural artifacts.
Painted across walls, ceilings and alcoves, the murals generally depict scenes from the life of the Buddha. Others depict scenes from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana. Many are folkloric allegories that show the misfortune of those who fail to resist temptation.
“Wat Painting,” is the product of six years of field research by 30-year-old Cambodian archeologist San Phalla, who visited more than 600 wats and collected some 20,000 photographs of wat paintings. What began as a university thesis eventually yielded some important discoveries. Phalla sums it up succinctly: Every wat has its paintings, and every painting tells a story.
“What made me more interested in the subject is that it must be studied fast or the history and stories will be lost,” Phalla said. “Monks don’t know how to maintain them, and many are already gone. The pagoda buildings need to be repaired and technical experts need to be called in with the ability to preserve them.”
Because of neglect and the time-worn tradition of re-painting every few years, the paintings Phalla studied averaged less than 100 years old. The murals are made vulnerable by their composition: mostly non-chemical paint brushed on stucco, concrete and wood. Many reside in dilapidated temples and have been subjected to the elements for many years.
“Even in wats that are 200- to 300-years-old the paintings are much newer, most of the older ones are from the last 80 years,” he said.
Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge enacted a methodical destruction of the Buddhist religion and its vestiges. Wat paintings were the target of widespread destruction. But as Buddhism was restored and returned to prominence after 1979, the tradition of painting wats was renewed.
Now Phalla is urging the government to preserve the older paintings as an integral part of cultural heritage.
“Monks in some of the older wats don’t like the old paintings and want to change them for new ones,” said Phalla. “Sometimes I go back to pagodas where I’ve been a few months before and the paintings are already gone, painted over, or the whole building’s been torn down.”
“Wat Painting in Cambodia” will be on display at Reyum through July.