Reawakening traditional crafts in Siem Reap
Text by Charlie Lancaster Photography by Sam Jam
A silent language breaks the concentration of a group of female painters huddled over their artwork. A flurry of hand movements, too quick for the untrained eye to understand, signals that an artist needs help. The dexterous deaf woman is working on a contemporary take on a traditional Khmer piece and wants the advice of her supervisor, for the revival of ancient art forms on silk is no easy feat.
Living in a silent world, 22-year-old Mit Kimran is one of 900 artisans, and one of 45 disabled artisans, employed by Artisans Angkor, also known as Artisans d’Angkor, to preserve traditional Khmer skills in silk making, stone and wood carving, lacquering and painting.
With 42 workshops, Artisans Angkor is the largest employer in Siem Reap and is renowned for replicating classic Angkor-era art. As if to prove this point, huge stone carvings pepper the lush grounds of the company’s main show room – a massive complex a few kilometres from Angkor Wat that welcomes visitors to tour its onsite workshops.
From the silence of silk painting to the cacophony of silver-plating, the sights and sounds of the tour – which can be conducted in Chinese, English, French, Japanese, Khmer, Korean or Spanish – provide artisans with an opportunity to show off their skills and tourists with the occasion to marvel at the dexterity of these craftsmen and women. Using primarily traditional techniques, with a little help from the technological advances of the past 900 years, artisans chip away at stone and wood to produce Buddhas, lingas and busts of Jayarvarman VII – the Angkorian king behind the picturesque temples of Ta Prohm and Bayon – among other things.
Their skill is not only evident inside the workshops. The most talented of these artisans have been commissioned to replace bas-relief carvings at Kbal Spean archaeological site, to create a monumental Angkor Wat-inspired 43-metre-long bas-relief at Amansara – one of Cambodia’s most exclusive hotels – and to carve a five-metre-high Buddha in Battambang.
While Artisans Angkor is known for replicating the ancient, traditional works do not have a monopoly on its creations. Embracing pop trends, artisans have fused contemporary art with culture, utilising vivid colours to bring mythical creatures such as Rahu – a Hindu character who ate the moon – to life on vibrant lacquer plates. A nose around Artisans Angkor’s expansive shop, home to more than one thousand handmade items, will reveal beautiful home furnishings, silk clothing and accessories that embrace Cambodia’s heritage with a 21st century twist.
Whether it is a large classical Angkorian silk wall hanging, a lacquer plate or a stone statue, at Artisans Angkor there is something for everyone who wants to take a little bit of Cambodia home.
More Information: www.artisansdangkor.com