Quickly after immigrating to the US from my native Cambodia within the early Nineties, I used to be wandering round a knickknack store within the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles after I came across a superbly replicated Angkorian-era head of the god Shiva. It was the one Khmer merchandise within the store, and I felt a right away connection to it. In reality, it spoke to me, telling me to take it house in order that it might be located and honored appropriately fairly than letting it drift inside an unfamiliar world. Although the top of Shiva was too costly for my restricted means, I purchased it anyway and positioned it on my family altar, the place I made choices and prayed to my gods, ancestors, and spirits.
For Cambodians, together with myself, the concept spirits can inhabit objects is commonplace. They are often present in non secular statues or in nature — a tree, a mountain, or the intersection of rivers.
My inventive observe, Cambodian classical dance — which UNESCO added to its Listing of the Intangible Treasures of Humanity in 2008 — was born as a type of ritual prayer among the many sandstone temples of historic Angkor (although most likely additionally within the Chenla and Funan kingdoms earlier than that). By dance, the king communicated with the heavens, asking for rain that will fertilize our agricultural empire. Although the dance has extra functions right now, together with my very own choreography for the proscenium stage, its sacred perform stays its core. I used to be a member of the primary technology to check and carry out classical dance within the aftermath of Pol Pot’s genocide (1975-1979), throughout which the dance was forbidden and a few 90% of its practitioners perished. The Folks’s Republic of Kampuchea was formally a socialist nation, and though the dance was finally revived, its non secular facet was downplayed throughout public performances, whereas its sanctity was maintained behind the scenes. Following the signing of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords, King Norodom Sihanouk’s return was greeted with an elaborate Buong Suong ritual, a danced prayer for blessings from the spirit world.
Every time I go to museums all over the world that home Khmer antiquities, I pray to the gods and ancestors that inhabit them. Typically I merely put my fingers collectively and chant. Different instances I transfer. That is my custom. It’s an important a part of my identification and my relationship to those objects. Once I visited the Musée Guimet in Paris, I marveled on the measurement and high quality of its assortment, which I knew had been taken from Cambodia underneath French colonial rule. However after I visited museums in the US, together with the Norton Simon, the Los Angeles County Museum of Artwork (LACMA), the Smithsonian’s Nationwide Museum of Asian Artwork, and the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork, I felt directly thrilled to come across my lacking heritage and conflicted by its dislocation from Cambodia. I used to be largely unfamiliar with the way it had arrived in its present state of affairs. I used to be conscious of the issue of looting however thought such outstanding museums may by no means be complicit in these sorts of crimes.
My understanding advanced after I was commissioned to choreograph a dance, carried out by Mot Pharan, in celebration of the return of a plundered statue of Phanna Bharamita from the gathering of Douglas Latchford in 2021. Pharan carried out the dance for a brief movie by director Ryan Barton, titled Returning Gods (in manufacturing). Individually, my university-aged son interned for a summer season with the workforce documenting and organizing the repatriation of looted Khmer antiquities led by the American lawyer Bradley Gordon. (My son is subsequently writing his senior thesis on the worth of returning such objects as a type of smooth diplomacy.) Consequently, I turned conscious of the wholesale ravaging of my tradition’s heritage via an elaborate community of thieves and unscrupulous artwork sellers, and the complicity of many museums on this illicit commerce, together with The Met.
In February of 2023, the producers of the podcast sequence Dynamite Doug, which examines the connection between The Met and the disgraced supplier Douglas Latchford, invited me to take part in a panel dialogue in New York Metropolis. Once they requested me if I’d be keen to bop earlier than the looted antiquities on show at The Met in order that they may share a video recording of it in the course of the panel, I agreed, partially, as a result of it was one thing I’d already accomplished. Ten years earlier, visiting the identical gallery by myself, I had taken off my footwear and danced a prayer for the gods that stood on pedestals earlier than me. These are non secular objects created by my ancestors for this very goal.
So, on 28 February, I entered the gallery with the Cambodian-Canadian actress Ellen Wong, host of Dynamite Doug, and my fellow panelist, the Cambodian archeologist Meas Sopheap. A couple of members of the Dynamite Doug workforce got here alongside to document my danced prayer. As is suitable, I eliminated my footwear (although, it being winter, I used to be carrying stockings) and approached the statue of the god Harihara. I prayed for his protected and immediate return to his homeland. I prayed to the 4 instructions after which moved on to the principle gallery. About two minutes into my temporary dance, a member of the museum’s safety workforce approached me and acknowledged that I wasn’t allowed to bop there with out permission. He additionally instructed me to placed on my footwear. Now, I knew that the museum can be sad if it understood what I used to be praying for. However in that trancelike state, I used to be unprepared to be interrupted. In reality, in my over 40 years of dancing, nobody has ever informed me to cease. Although I obliged with out protest, I used to be thrown off steadiness. If I had merely walked to every statue and prayed, I doubt he would’ve felt compelled to cease me. One thing about my rhythmic motion, silent and subdued because it was, set the guard on edge. One of many individuals recording the video informed me that he discovered my danced prayer so highly effective he was shaking.
If there was any uncertainty about how the museum felt about my presence it was clarified when the Dynamite Doug workforce tried to interview me in regards to the expertise on the museum steps and The Met’s safety workforce informed us we weren’t allowed to be there. As I perceive it, The Met is a publicly supported museum located in a public park. I think we had each authorized proper to be there. However, as soon as once more, we obliged and moved to the sidewalk.
That I used to be stopped from appearing out the very goal for which these stolen statues had been created speaks on to the explanation why Cambodia is demanding their return from The Met. They don’t belong in a New York Metropolis museum, particularly an uncooperative one which thinks it ought to outline how Cambodians can work together with them. I agree with Sopheap that these artifacts belong among the many temples from which they had been looted. As soon as returned, they are often positioned amongst restored temples in order that native individuals can incorporate their presence into their on a regular basis lives. Likewise, individuals who would have in any other case seen these artifacts at The Met can go to Cambodia and expertise them of their correct context. Even when that’s not potential, and these treasures of our historic and cultural heritage find yourself in certainly one of Cambodia’s many museums, I can guarantee you that no guard will ever demand that guests cease praying to them. We Cambodians, be it safety guards, archeologists, or choreographers, know the place our spirits reside.