For decades, i have been passionately and devotedly collecting artworks connected to Cambodian culture. In over forty years, a great many beautiful pieces made from gold, silver, stone, fajance, porcelain, wood, glass, gemstones, and so on, found their way into my collection. The collection of silks that I have acquired, piece by piece, over several decades is particularly close to my heart. It superbly represents the silk garments that were created between the middle of the 19th and mid 20th century, originally ‘for the gods’ and their earthly rulers. The high quality and range of colour and form in Khmer silk culture that stretches back over more than a thousand years is truly amazing. I was most fortunate in being able to buy ‘ritual’ silks, the so-called pidans, from the family of a doctor who had obtained them in the 1930s whilst working in the French-IndoChinese administration.
As the number of silks I acquired grew, the more deeply I became immersed in Khmer cultural history, and began researching the history of Khmer silk, as well as collecting information and artefacts connected with Cambodian silk weaving. Currently, in addition to my collection of silks, I also have some one hundred artefacts, including the trimmings and components for large and small weaving looms (i.e. spools and brushes) that shed light on the craft of silk weaving. An interesting and special part of this collection is comprised of silver belts from the 20th century that were applied to another type of silk dress, the khans, for fastening or decorative purposes. One important contribution to the birth of my silk collection was an experience I had in early 1979 in the capital, Phnom Penh, which had been pillaged and emptied by the Khmer Rouge. As a young diplomat serving in Vietnam, I was commissioned by the Foreign Ministry of Hungary to travel to the Cambodian capital and assist in the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of the Hungarian Embassy following the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
By the order of Hun Sen, then the new foreign minister – today prime minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia – I received a secretary, a body guard and a driver to facilitate success in my mission in Cambodia. The assigned secretary was a beautiful woman who turned out to have been released with her two-year-old son from a labour camp in Phnom Penh just a few weeks before. She had been one of the leading dancers of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia before the Khmer Rouge seized power. On many occasions during my weeks of travel, she helped me in my work. When my mission was complete she bestowed a gift on me of a silk item from her family that she had previously worn in line with Cambodian tradition. This silk was the first item in my collection. In recent decades I have searched for and collected Cambodian silks in Europe, America and South-East Asia (Vietnam and Thailand). As a result of my work I have hundreds of silk dresses in my collection. Now that the scientific evaluation and public presentation of my South-East-Asian collection has begun, it is time for my collection of Khmer silks to be presented in an exclusive album and an exhibition to show the world the art of silk weaving and the wondrous beauty of the ‘silks for the gods’. In the publication of the album presenting my collection of Khmer silks I received important support from the Cambodian Minister of Culture Sackona Phoeurng, who allowed us to take reference photographs of the Cambodian National Museum’s silk collection and also to use the museum’s archive to increase the scientific value of this album. I would like to express my sincere and grateful thanks to her. It is also important to highlight the fact that this album could not have come into being without the expert scientific work of Dr. Susan Conway and Gillian Green, for which I would like to express my intense gratitude.
Dr. István Zelnik
The Khmer Silk Collection of Dr. Zelnik is one of the 3 most importants Khmer silk collection in the world. The two other are: the The Thai Queen’s Collection and the Collection of the National Museum of Cambodia / Phom Penh. The most rare and precious part of the collection are the Pidans, the pittoresque religious silk pieces.
© Silk for the Gods – Khmer Silk from the Collection of Dr. Zelnik © Dr. Susan Conway, Gillian Green, Dr. István Zelnik