Ingrid Muan received her PhD in Art History from Columbia University
in 2000, entitled "Citing Angkor: Cambodian Arts in the Age
of Restoration, 1918-2000," based on research she conducted
in Cambodia and in the US National Archives, among other places
from 1997-1999. Basically, once Ingrid moved to Phnom Penh in
1997 she never left, becoming involved not only in research but
also teaching at the University of Fine Arts and trying to bring
Cambodian arts education into the 20th Century and out of the
narrow box in which it had long been confined. She spent countless
hours working with and encouraging young Khmer artists to consider
new techniques and perspectives, as well as working with older,
established artists to document their original accomplishments
which were ignored by others because they strayed from what Westerners
(and many Khmers) considered "appropriate" or "acceptable"
for Khmer artists.
In her dissertation, which quite frankly reads more like a good
novel than an important piece of academic research (though it
is certainly the latter), she documents the ways that Khmer artists
were encouraged to only consider a limited range of styles and
perspectives in the colonial-sponsored educational system, as
well as the way Angkor itself was created and handed to the Khmers
from the outside as a "timeless symbol of Khmer-ness."
Her insights prove invaluable in understanding many limitations
and problems in the Khmer educational system to this day, and
the way these attitudes and perspectives originally imposed from
without came to be reproduced from within, not only in art education
but across countless academic disciplines.
Rather than simply stop at documenting why things are the way
they are, however, Ingrid worked for many years after her dissertation
was completed helping Cambodian painters, sculptors, writers,
metalworkers and others find their own personal and unique voice
and learn the techniques necessary to express themselves in original
and vital ways. She opened a gallery, Reyum, close to the University
of Fine Arts, which then spawned a publishing company and indeed
a whole documentation enterprise. Ingrid and her staff trained
a veritable army of young, bright Khmers to go out and research
and document not just expressive Khmer arts but also everyday
aesthetic expressions of Khmer-ness often
ignored by the mainstream, or forgotten in the turbulent recent
history of the country.
This research, and the theme-specific artistic projects that
often grew out of it, was expressed in wonderful, fascinating
exhibits at Reyum, and permanently documented in the many exhibition
catalogs that Reyum published, works of art in their own right,
full of not just artwork and photographic documentation but also
interviews with elderly Cambodians who had important stories to
tell, artist and non-artist alike.
Far from simply an idealistic crusader, Ingrid was an eminently
practical and forward-thinking promotor of Khmer arts as well;
she proved extremely adept at funding Reyum's many projects with
a succession of large grants from important funding bodies like
Rockefeller and Toyota.Â Her latest project before her passing
was to bring teams of young Khmer researchers to Thailand to carry
out research projects in Thai provinces rich with Khmer history
and dominated by Khmer minorities.
Ingrid never wanted to take credit for her work; she wanted that
credit to go to Cambodian artists themselves, and she always shied
away from publicity like the New York Times article several years
back which painted her as some sort of "great white savior"
to Cambodian arts. She was furious at that piece, and she would
very likely grimace and shake
her finger at me were she to be able to read my words praising
Ingrid died very suddenly in January of this year, in Phnom Penh,
due to complications resulting from a mistreated dog bite.
Ingrid was my student, my friend and confidant, and I and everyone
else whose life she touched with her passion, compassion and brilliance
will mourn her passing and fondly remembering her life and spirit
for a long time to come.