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Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia



Close to the monument for the King Father Sihanouk there is café where a new generation of Cambodian artists gathers. I am here to meet a sculptor, a Cambodian woman, whom I first met when she was sponsored to come to Melbourne.

It was a small gathering of people at Melbourne University, some who understood sculpture and some who knew Cambodia. I watched her come into a circle of light. She was clad in black cotton pyjamas, the uniform issued by the Khmer Rouge officials to their millions of slave labourers in the rice fields and digging gangs of the Pol Pot times. She carried in her two hands a terracotta cooking pot used in the villages to cook rice over a charcoal fire. She lifted the pot above her head like a consecration. She stretched out her hands and the pot shattered to the ground.

In the silence of those gathered around her she sat on the straw mat among the broken pieces, took a small tube of superglue from one pocket and a ball of string from the other. She gathered the large fragments and glued them, then, so that the glue would set, tied string around the skeleton of shape they made. She gathered small shards, pieced them together and pushed them into place. Nobody moved. Nobody spoke. It took an hour. Then she held it towards us saying nothing.

I talked to her there in Melbourne. We understood things that can be known but rarely put into words. She told me about a piece of art that she calls ‘Broken’ and invited me to see it in Phnom Penh.

As I wait for her my mobile rings. ‘It’s me. Nee. Just off the bus from Kompong Cham. Where are you? I can find a motor-dup and come to meet you.’

‘Java Gallery. You know it? Yes, do come.’

There are thirty-three sheets of glass, each a sixty-centimetre square. Every square has been shattered then painstakingly glued together again: each sliver in place. Dangerous, meticulous work it must surely be. When set one upon another the pile of glass sheets is perhaps twelve centimetres in depth. A solid stack of glass squares. The light shines through.

Look at it from above. Layer upon layer of shattering and splintering. Layer upon layer upon layer of holding together. Broken edges in the top layer are clear to see. Lines are jagged. To gather sharp fragments and glue them in place must surely risk bloodshed. You notice first the patterns in the layers at the top. The layers at the bottom are harder to see. As you lean down to look you see the image of your own face.

Keep looking into the depth of it. It is luminous in the light. The more you relax the more you see. It is both fragile and strong. In the natural light the lines merge, glow, form a pattern, jade green now, a dense block of glass. It is beautiful. The strong lines in the top layer of glass merge into the fainter and fainter web of cracks in the depth. All is one: fragile and strong, broken and restored. The pieces are all there but nothing is the same as before.

I think of the poet Yeats who wrote, ‘All is changed, changed utterly … A terrible beauty is born’.

I tell Raksmey about it. ‘Must be like a diamond when the light shines through,’ he says.

Writing for Raksmey: A Story of Cambodia

   by Joan Healy