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Tails of the past
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In "Tails of the Past" the artist recreated a 10th-century Javanese engraving using contemporary Khmer script. In her native tongue, which she is illiterate in, she recounted a recent challenging historical familial narrative where the truth has been made inaccessible to her. Her commitment to crafting an engraving from scratch, meticulously hammered by hand, and the sharing of such a personal story serve as her commentary on the capricious nature of historiography and its personal and political dimensions, along with the technologies ensuring its survival. Through this piece, she ponders: What happens to your psyche if you're never told the truth? What transpires when stories are erased? Who bears the weight of this burden? If interested in the translation of the story, please send an email to samboleaptol@gmail.com.

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From Post-Exhibition Catalogue (prod. by Cemeti Institute for Arts & Society, 2023), the artist writes:

"During the first half of my residency, my journey was plagued by this resemblance between the Javanese and Khmer cultures. I kept wondering about the depth of these connections and whether there had been a significant period of exchange and migration between the two civilizations. I got what I asked for when I (re)discovered that King Jayavarman II had spent significant time in Java before establishing the Khmer empire. I found ancient Javanese administrative slates mentioning Khmers as foreigners on the island, indicating their presence in significant numbers. And by accident, I stumbled upon the rumor suggesting that the Kalang people, a subethnic Javanese group, were descendants of Khmers.

To delve deeper into this historical aspect, I invited the history enthusiast Yoga Efendi to speak at my public event at Cemeti. We discussed various periods of exchange, showcasing inscriptions and artistic resemblances, such as commonalities between our dances, statues, and architectural structures. We speculated that Khmers might have come to Java as Buddhist appreciators when Jayavarman II's reign forced them to adopt Hinduism. We theorized that they possibly contributed to the construction of Buddhist temples like Borobudur. Both Yoga and I are ardent Cambodia enthusiasts, Buddhists and Borobudur fanatics, so our conversation was inevitably colored by our biased fantasies.

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One particular slate caught my attention for a long time: a 10th-century inscription in Old Javanese at Museum Sonobodoyo. The stone inscription had nothing to do with Khmers; it's just that Old Javanese resembled the Khmer script so much. As a diasporic Khmer, I struggled with the Khmer script. To me, Khmer is the most beautiful script in the world. However, perhaps because of this beauty, it also broke my heart. I tried so many times to read and write it, but it stood as a barrier between myself and my origins. Through it, I found a connection with Javanese people from the 10th century, but at the same time, because of it, I couldn't understand current Khmer affairs or my late dad's handwriting.

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In response to these feelings, I decided to build an inscription of my own, using my bare hands. Yogyakartan artist Ramadhan Arif Fatkhur taught me how to create an embossing in aluminum by bending iron wires into a mirrored script. It was a time-consuming and painstaking process, where I would spend 15 minutes bending wire for each word, or 6-8 hours per sentence, despite the fact that I wrote the text in under 5 minutes. The text was translated over Instagram by a Khmer friend."

A post exhibition booklet has been developed capturing the development of this works and others. Please view the digital version here. A printed version with 300 copies will be released soon.

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Tails of the past was developed during a 3 month residency at Cemeti Institute for Arts and Society, Yogyakarta Indonesia, funded by the Mondriaanfonds. The work was developed with the help of: Ramadhan Arif Fatkhur, Pitou Keo and Muhammad Eva Nuril Huda.

The work is on display at TENT Rotterdam as part of the Dolf Henkes Award 2023, until Jan 7 2024. This iteration of the work includes a Dutch and English translation, wheras the Jogja iteration included a Bahasa Indonesia and English translation.

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Photography by Syahidin Pamungkas

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Photography by Aad Hoogendoorn (openingnight Dolf Henkes Prijs 2023)

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