Looking at Angkor Through an Artist’s Archives

Shui Tit Sing was an artist with the soul of an archivist whose sharp focus on Angkor, both in his work and his vast collections, captured life in Cambodia in the early 1960s.

Shui Tit Sing and a group of like-minded fellow artists from Singapore, who dubbed themselves the Ten Men Art Group, arrived at Ang­kor in Au­gust 1963, eager not only to visit the millennium-old city, but also to observe daily life in the country.

Artist Shui Tit Sing poses in Angkor park during his visit to Cambodia in August 1963. (Singapore Art Archive Project and Koh Nguang How)
Artist Shui Tit Sing poses in Angkor park during his visit to Cambodia in August 1963.
(Singapore Art Archive Project and Koh Nguang How)

The artist kept everything from the trip, from his guidebook on Angkor to his photos of everyday life in Cambodia. A portion of his archives—a hefty 70 kg—is being exhibited at Sa Sa Bassac gallery in Phnom Penh through October 8.

The exhibition, “The Singapore Art Archive Project,” which opens Saturday night, was organized by a group of museum curators and includes a vast array of materials, ranging from magazine articles on Southeast Asian arts in the early 1960s to photographs of Cambodian villages.

The Ten Men Group—which, despite the name, also included women—traveled through­out the region, to Indonesia, Ma­laysia, Borneo and Thailand, “to develop new artworks inspired by what they saw around Southeast Asia,” said Vera Mey, a New Zealand art curator of Cambodian heritage. “They were artists who looked to the re­gion for new kind of aesthetic re­gional inspiration.”

After his trip, Shui Tit Sing began to create art reflecting age-old Cambo­di­an village scenes in contemporary styles. He also tried his hand at works inspired by Angkor, some of which can be seen in the exhibition.

Artist and curator Koh Nguang How first saw Shui Tit Sing’s massive collection when he visited him at his home in 1997 and found that his house was filled with old magazine articles, books, photos and art related to Southeast Asia and the group’s travels throughout the re­gion in the 1960s.

Not surprisingly, Angkor was a focus. “In art history, when it comes to Asia or Southeast Asia, it’s always Angkor,” Mr. Koh said.

By then, Shui Tit Sing, who was in his 80s, was better known as a sculptor. When he died in 1997, Mr. Koh volunteered to help his family go through his archives and catalogue his work. Two years ago, Ms. Mey, who was then a curator at the Cen­ter for Con­tem­porary Art Sing­apore, worked with him to hold an exhibition of the archives.

Some of the material exhibited at Sa Sa Bassac will travel to Paris in September as part of the exhibition “Anywhere But Here” at the Beton­salon Center for Art and Research, said Melanie Mermod, the center’s program coordinator, who has also helped organize the Sa Sa Bassac exhibition.

The Paris exhibition, which will include the work of Cambodian artists Kvay Samnang and Lino Vuth, will focus on the circulation of ideas in the arts in Southeast Asia and between the region and France in the 20th century, she said.

Asked about the risk of damaging Shui Tit Sing’s historical documents, which mainly consist of news­papers and photos, Mr. Koh said there was also a danger in barring people from viewing and touching precious archives.

“It’s a risk, but I think, you know, knowing that all good things in the past never last in original form,” he said. “They last through reproduction, transferal of the knowledge, publications, teaching. So archives should be the same.”
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