Khmer lacquer making and Lakhaoun Khaol

Opening reception, October 27, 1999



Lakhaoun Khaol is a type of Cambodian theater which presents scenes from the Reamker (the Khmer version of the Ramayana) as performed by mostly masked male actors. This exhibition presents masks of the main characters of Lakhaoun Khaol made by the workshop of An Sok. We accompany these masks with both a presentation of the story of this particular theatrical form as it is performed in the village of Svay Andaet, and with a brief discussion of the technical processes by which Khmer lacquer masks are made.

On opposite walls of the gallery, the two warring forces of the Reamker face each other. To the right of the entrance are the yeak or demons le by Krong Reap, the demon King of the island of Langka. On the left of the entrance are the monkey troops loyal to the hero, Preah Ream, his brother Preah Leak, and his wife Neang Seda. It is the theft of Neang Seda by Krong Reap which precipitates most of the ensuing action of the epic, pitting the army of the monkeys against the army of the yeak. Between these two sides, in the middle of our exhibition are the masks of Pipaet and the hermit, figures who are either neutral in the conflict or who have interaction at one time or another with both of the warring factions.

The masks on display are the centerpiece of our exhibition. We however wish to set these masks into two contexts. Through the accompanying photographs on the walls, arranged in sequence with explanatory text labels, as well as in the catalogue essay, we describe the performance of Lakhaoun Khaol in its village setting of Vat Svay Andaet. By exhibiting raw materials such as mrek (natural lacquer resin), unfinished masks, and lacquer ornament molds on the center tables, we wish to illuminate the processes of making Khmer lacquer masks. Only a few remaining artists, such as An Sok, keep these traditional ways of making alive in the present.

The process of preparing this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue has been an occasion for students of the Archaeology and Fine Arts Departments of the Royal University of Fine Arts to share their research on this topic and to put the display of these art objects into an anthropological light. Our exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are modest works with many missing pieces. We hope however that they will spur others, in particular students, to pursue further research which will deepen our knowledge of the subjects sketched here.