From the Phnom Penh Post, January 22 - February
The art of saving a nation’s soul
By Sarah Stephens / Photos by Heng Sinith
The painter, Chet Chan
Chet Chan crouches by the brightly colored silk painting
and gazes impassively at the stylized images that dance across the
canvas. To the untrained eye, these beautiful figures seem to represent
a rare and refined side to Khmer art, with their delicate lilting
lines and painstaking detail.
"What do you think? I think it's rubbish. We
should throw it away,” says Ly Daravuth, Professor of Art and
Art History at Phnom Penh's University of Fine Arts. He's serious.
Astonishingly, when he suggests this to Chan. the shy, 60-year-old
artisan chuckles and agrees. This is not some strange publicity stunt.
Chet Chan is a highly-trained craftsman who has survived Cambodia's
various wars, famines and brutal regimes, and is now one of the few
expert traditional painters left in the country. His is a dying craft
but he is determined to pass on the complex codes and secret conventions
of traditional Khmer painting to a new generation. However, the painting
he is studying now was commissioned by a foreigner — a foreigner
who dictated colors, style and subject to the craftsman — thereby
losing the very essence of Chan's art.
"Today, every Cambodian artist does what he
wants. There are no rules," says Chan. "Guidelines and rules
for traditional Khmer painting are very important, especially in terms
of morals and ethics. "Some of the art you see in the shops is
just pornography. Art shouldn't be about this."
Chan only paints scenes from the Reamker, the Cambodian
version of the Ramayana. For more than 30 years he has refined his
technique, studied the artisans who went before him, and recorded
the highly complex codification system that dictates how the characters
and scenes from the Reamkershould be portrayed. In a reverentially
handled notebook, fine pen and ink drawings and extensive notes detail
the titles and images of paintings once found in the Royal Palace,
images now worn away or lost. His, he says, is the only correct record
of these paintings and their techniques.
His sadness is apparent as he describes how the younger
generation of Khmers are not interested in his work. "They don't
know they shouldn't paint sacred images like a god when they don't
know how to paint them. It's only commercial [for them]."
Daravuth is passionate about preserving these traditional
crafts. He is now putting together an exhibition by three of Cambodia's
most respected artisans. "Continuity is the most important thing
for me. These artisans are from a generation of people who still hold
certain values. They are a continuation of a line." There is
now less demand for their work because they are not immediately productive,
he continues. The craftsmen may take months to produce a single piece,
meaning high prices and low output. There is no souvenir stall mass
production here. "The young don't know that the objects [at the
Russian Market] are horrible. There is no model for their generation,"
The silversmith, Som Samai
Silversmith Som Samai, 74, knows well the difficulty
of handing down years of experience to younger craftsmen. "I
am teaching my children how to craft silver, but till now I have only
taught them 30 percent of what I know." Samai has worked with
silver since he was fourteen years old, when he answered an appeal
for students at the then newly-formed Ecole des Arts (now the School
of Fine Arts). This was the heyday for his art, he says, before "war
and communism". He is reluctant to condemn the inferior quality
products that flood Phnom Penh's tourist centers, because, he says,
"everything was lost during Pol Pot. I can't blame them. But
I would like to advise them on their techniques".
The mask maker, An Sok
Lacquer-maker An Sok, whose magnificent masks adorn
his home and workshop, says that even his own creations have declined
in quality since the 1960s, because he is unable to afford the expensive
gold leaf needed to decorate the elaborate objects. "People don't
want to buy expensive things now. When something's cheap they'll buy
Phnom Penh residents will have a chance to see the
work of the masters later this month, when samples of silverware,
traditional painting and lacquer masks are exhibited at Situations
Gallery. The gallery, which opened late last year, is the brainchild
of three people: Daravuth; Visiting Lecturer at the Faculty of Sculpture
Ingrid Muan: and Ambassador of the Order of Malta Jacques Bakaert.
While showcasing collections both modern and traditional,
Daravuth hopes the exhibition will play an important role in bringing
traditional arts back into the limelight. "Transmission of knowledge
is so important", he says. "I want to get kids motivated,
to get them to wonder how do you draw a Hanuman figure?" If these
things are not recorded, he says, they will all be lost to history.
But there is hope. There are plans to produce a
series of manuals on traditional painting techniques, and the lacquer
workshop at the School of Fine Arts is about to reopen after having
been closed for years with the help of An Sok's son, who will teach
For Som Samai at least, to lose those crafts would
be much more than the disappearance of a certain way of life. As he
gently handles his latest creation, a pair of exquisitely carved silver
slippers, he reflects: "We should preserve this craft because
it shows the nation's soul. If you lose that, you lose your nation."
The work of Som Samai, Chet Chan and An Sok will
be exhibited at Situations Gallery, No.47 Street 178 from the 29th