Soon after immigrating to the United States from my native Cambodia in the early 1990s, I was wandering around a knickknack shop in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles when I came upon a beautifully replicated Angkorian-era head of the god Shiva. It was the only Khmer item in the shop, and I felt an immediate connection to it. In fact, it spoke to me, telling me to take it home so that it could be situated and honored appropriately rather than letting it drift within an unfamiliar world. Though the head of Shiva was too expensive for my limited means, I bought it anyway and placed it on my household altar, where I made offerings and prayed to my gods, ancestors, and spirits.
For Cambodians, including myself, the idea that spirits can inhabit objects is commonplace. They can be found in religious statues or in nature — a tree, a mountain, or the intersection of rivers.
My artistic practice, Cambodian classical dance — which UNESCO added to its List of the Intangible Treasures of Humanity in 2008 — was born as a form of ritual prayer among the sandstone temples of ancient Angkor (though probably also in the Chenla and Funan kingdoms before that). Through dance, the king communicated with the heavens, asking for rain that would fertilize our agricultural empire. Though the dance has additional purposes today, including my own choreography for the proscenium stage, its sacred function remains its core. I was a member of the first generation to study and perform classical dance in the aftermath of Pol Pot’s genocide (1975-1979), during which the dance was forbidden and some 90% of its practitioners perished. The People’s Republic of Kampuchea was officially a socialist country, and although the dance was eventually revived, its spiritual side was downplayed during public performances, while 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.
Whenever I visit museums around the world that house Khmer antiquities, I pray to the gods and ancestors that inhabit them. Sometimes I simply put my hands together and chant. Other times I move. This is my tradition. It is an essential part of my identity and my relationship to these objects. When I visited the Musée Guimet in Paris, I marveled at the size and quality of its collection, which I knew had been taken from Cambodia under French colonial rule. But when I visited museums in the United States, including the Norton Simon, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I felt at once thrilled to encounter my missing heritage and conflicted by its dislocation from Cambodia. I was largely unfamiliar with how it had arrived in its current situation. I was aware of the problem of looting but thought such prominent museums could never be complicit in these kinds of crimes.
My understanding evolved when I was commissioned to choreograph a dance, performed by Mot Pharan, in celebration of the return of a plundered statue of Phanna Bharamita from the collection of disgraced art dealer Douglas Latchford in 2021. Pharan performed the dance for a short film by director Ryan Barton, titled Returning Gods (in production). Separately, my university-aged son interned for a summer with the team 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 value of returning such objects as a form of soft diplomacy.) As a result, I became aware of the wholesale ravaging of my culture’s heritage through an elaborate network of thieves and unscrupulous art dealers, and the complicity of many museums in this illicit trade, including The Met.
In February of 2023, the producers of the podcast series Dynamite Doug, which examines the connection between The Met and Latchford, invited me to participate in a panel discussion in New York City. When they asked me if I’d be willing to dance before the looted antiquities on display at The Met so that they could share a video recording of it during the panel, I agreed, in part, because it was something I’d already done. Ten years earlier, visiting the same gallery on my own, I had taken off my shoes and danced a prayer for the gods that stood on pedestals before me. These are religious objects created by my ancestors for this very purpose.
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 few members of the Dynamite Doug team came along to record my danced prayer. As is appropriate, I removed my shoes (though, it being winter, I was wearing stockings) and approached the statue of the god Harihara. I prayed for his safe and prompt return to his homeland. I prayed to the four directions and then moved on to the main gallery. About two minutes into my brief dance, a member of the museum’s security team approached me and stated that I wasn’t allowed to dance there without permission. He also instructed me to put on my shoes. Now, I knew that the museum would be unhappy if it understood what I was praying for. But in that trancelike state, I was unprepared to be interrupted. In fact, in my over 40 years of dancing, no one has ever told me to stop. Though I obliged without protest, I was thrown off balance. If I had simply walked to each statue and prayed, I doubt he would’ve felt compelled to stop me. Something about my rhythmic movement, silent and subdued as it was, set the guard on edge. One of the people recording the video told me that he found my danced prayer so powerful he was shaking.
If there was any uncertainty about how the museum felt about my presence it was clarified when the Dynamite Doug team attempted to interview me about the experience on the museum steps and The Met’s security team told us we weren’t allowed to be there. As I understand it, The Met is a publicly supported museum situated in a public park. I suspect we had every legal right to be there. But, once again, we obliged and moved to the sidewalk.
That I was stopped from acting out the very purpose for which these stolen statues were created speaks directly to the reason why Cambodia is demanding their return from The Met. They don’t belong in a New York City museum, especially an uncooperative one that thinks it should define how Cambodians can interact with them. I agree with Sopheap that these artifacts belong among the temples from which they were looted. Once returned, they can be placed among restored temples so that local people can incorporate their presence into their everyday lives. Likewise, people who would have otherwise viewed these artifacts at The Met can visit Cambodia and experience them in their proper context. Even if that’s not possible, and these treasures of our historical and cultural heritage end up in one of Cambodia’s many museums, I can assure you that no guard will ever demand that visitors stop praying to them. We Cambodians, be it security guards, archeologists, or choreographers, know where our spirits reside.