- Hol Pidan: Cambodian Traditional Pictorial Silk Textile Preservation and Development, at the National Museum of Cambodia, 2016
The first temporary exhibition of 2016 at the National Museum of Cambodia (NMC) was a collection of 11 new silk textiles, hol pidan (). All were produced since 2012 by Cambodian weavers working under the umbrella of a Japanese non-governmental organisation—Caring for Young Khmer (CYK). This was the third such collaborative exhibition at the NMC, with the express aims of promoting this unique weaving culture and supporting the preservation, revitalisation and development of this textile heritage.1 The beautifully curated show gave a welcome focus to Cambodian textiles and their present-day manufacture within an institution chiefly dedicated to the display of exceptional historic sculptural work.
Anthropologist and art historian Siyonn Sophearith has thoroughly researched the functions and historical antecedents of the various types of pidan (), a term which generally refers to the wooden or concrete ceiling of a Buddhist worship hall.2 Often a tiered cloth structure is hung above a Buddha statue instead, called a pidan preah (), which acts as a parasol [End Page 205] to “protect” the Buddha.3 Hol pidan, such as those in the exhibition, are also placed as permanent parasols above a Buddha statue, although they are also installed in temporary religious structures during specific ceremonies and, on occasion, are hung vertically. Hol is a resist-dyed silk textile, commonly worn as clothing in Cambodia. Hol pidan fabric differs in that it usually features religious motifs and maintains a ritual function, hung in religious buildings and never worn as attire.
Historically hol pidan were commissioned as “high-value” donations for the “protection” of a statue in a wat () Theravada Buddhist temple complex) or for use during religious ceremonies such as funerals. Such an expensive donation provided karmic merit for the donor. The practice of weaving them was and remains an important source of livelihood for women.4 But by the early 1990s, hol pidan manufacture was at risk of disappearing in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge genocide (1975–79), which targeted artists and attempted to eradicate religious and cultural traditions. Those who survived this period and the subsequent decades of upheaval tended not to pass on their expert knowledge to younger generations. Not only was the technique itself on the precipice of extinction, but surviving examples of hol pidan were scattered and in a fragile state.5 Textiles do not last long in a tropical climate and the majority of antique hol pidan are found in museum collections outside of Cambodia. This situation led CYK to introduce the technique to its advanced weaving practitioners. Harumi Sekiguchi, the director of CYK, believes that by the 1990s the practice of donors commissioning hol pidan for wats had all but ended; the majority of their hol pidan are sold to tourists, with only a handful commissioned for villages or as gifts.6 According to Gillian Green, this production of hol pidan exclusively for artistic value and the tourist trade began in the 1960s, although the purchase of these fabrics by foreigners would have almost certainly begun earlier, when European tourists arrived in Cambodia in ever greater numbers in the first decades of the 20th century.7 Furthermore, as museums around the world focused their attention on collecting textiles, these pictorial fabrics gained popularity with international dealers, who provide weavers with photographs of antique textiles to be replicated. Although overseas interest in these textiles increased, hol pidan continued to be produced for a domestic market and can still be found in situ in wats across Cambodia.8 This complex and dynamic situation is illuminated by this exhibition and its attempts to weave contemporary aesthetic appreciation with the preservation of cultural heritage.
The 11 hol pidan in this NMC exhibition have been produced in the last three years by pidan-master Soung Mech and a cohort of his female students. These exquisitely detailed textiles float gently against the white gallery walls, [End Page 206] appearing to be presented as artworks that are firmly of the present time. It is...