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Restoring ancient monuments at Cambodia's Angkor Wat

Posted Date: Wednesday, 12-Sep-2012

"Look at that one - she's got really big lips".

Sasha Constable is admiring the carvings of the Apsara nymphs on the walls of Cambodia's most famous ancient temple, Angkor Wat. Every year, millions of visitors do much the same. The bas reliefs at this 900-year-old monument are remarkably well-preserved.

But Sasha is no tourist - she is a sculptor herself and a member of one of Britain's most famous artistic families. Her father Richard is a well-known painter - and she can trace a direct line back to John Constable.

Sasha has carried on the traditions of the dynasty, while taking a distinct path of her own.

Since 2000 she has been based in Cambodia. As well as creating her own work, she has contributed to the country's artistic revival as a teacher and curator.
As much as anyone, Sasha has helped to raise the international profile of Cambodian art, helping young artists to make a living from their passion.

"Cambodian artists are being profiled more and more," she says.

"Now some are exhibiting abroad and their work is being exposed to a different audience. That means the prices go up, which is good for them. It's one of the last countries in this region where art has suddenly become more and more interesting to people."
'Privileged'

Now, after everything that Sasha has offered Cambodia, the country is giving something back. Perhaps the greatest prize she could have imagined: a commission to recreate some of the lost carvings at Angkor Wat.

"It's a huge privilege. It was a really interesting, challenging project - but really just a privilege."

Joining Sasha at Angkor, sweltering in the afternoon sun, is Cheam Phally of the World Monuments Fund.

She was the architect in charge of restoring one of the temple's best-known features - a long, bas relief gallery known as "the churning of the sea of milk", displaying scenes from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana.

But something was missing from the restoration. The Apsara figures which once decorated the gallery's roof were gone - victims of the passage of time or, perhaps, looters.

Sitting on the grass in front of the gallery, Cheam Phally points to what look like some lumps of rock among a number of larger slabs.

"These are fragments of the Apsaras, the lower halves," she says, picking one up, then placing it in a hole in one of the slabs.

"It would have gone in the roof stone like this."

The WMF's commission was for Sasha to recreate the Apsaras, with the aim of placing them on the roof of the restored gallery.

"We wanted to bring the sculptures back to the public - and to rebuild them we needed someone who understood Khmer art. Sasha has a deep understanding."
'Very proud'

The British artist enlisted local sculptor Chhay Saron to join her in researching - and making - the pieces.
He has a remarkable story of his own - a former soldier and landmine survivor who retrained as a sculptor, and now employs other disabled people in his workshop within the Angkor temple complex.

"As a Khmer person, when I see an Apsara sculpture I feel so happy," he says. "A lot of the ancient Apsara sculptures have been damaged - that's why I'm so pleased to have been given this assignment."

Now, after months of work, the two have completed their sculptures. At her workshop, Sasha proudly unveils one of the finished pieces, pointing out how the design will allow the light to pass through.

"We were asked to make each sculpture different, as they would have been in the day. Some have different levels of detail - this one is a little bit plainer, but still has motifs around the edge."

"They're a lot more delicate than many of the sculptures at Angkor. It should give the public an image of what Angkor would have looked like in the original day."

Just down the road, Chhay Saron has finished his two pieces - and he can hardly wait for them to take their place at Angkor Wat.

"When people come by to look at my carvings they haven't seen the likes before, because the originals were damaged and destroyed. They always ask where they're going to end up - and I tell them they will be on top of Angkor Wat."

"Future generations will be able to see this and understand that there were sculptures like this in the Angkor temples. I'm very proud."

The finished work is in keeping with the legacy of Angkor - and represents a proud moment in the illustrious history of the Constable family. One suspects that great, great, great grandfather John would have approved.

Sourced: bbc