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Color, Arts, and Craft Beauty - The Cambodian Arts & Beauty...
   Color, Arts, and Craft

Color, Arts, and Craft Beauty
The Cambodian Arts & Beauty

Walk through the door of a traditional Khmer house in the center of an old warehouse building in Phnom Penh and center the intricate and fascinating world of Cambodian handicrafts – a centuries-old world reviving in fine fashion. In front of you is a room of silks in muted, earthy colors woven on looms similar to those used hundreds of years ago. Look around and find carved dancing Apsaras, threatening garudas and other figures from a mythic past.


On one side you see baskets, platters and plates woven of tough vines harvested from the jungles by generations of women. And look over there -silver bowls in the shape of elephants, deer, wild pegs, fish and goats. Here is traditional furniture; there, leather goods. This is a Bassac Crafts Center, comprising a group of organizations that are leading the Kingdom’s crafts revival and working to establish high standards for quality. These community development organizations -including the Sobbhana Foundation, Lotus Pond, the School of Fine Arts Association, Tabitha, Wat Than Crafts, Khemara House, JSRC, the Women’s Association of Cambodia and Krousar Thney- assist poor families and the disabled.

Their crafts are for sale –retail and wholesale- with proceeds supporting efforts to revive the traditional crafts. Cambodia’s culture of handicrafts goes back to the early years of the county’s history, to the day when god-kings were erecting the massive monuments of Angkor.


Pottery in old and new design

The ancient traditions of weaving, sculpting and carving were passed on fromgeneration to generation. Most of this came to a halt in the 70s, when the Khmer Rouge considered the arts elitist and artisans were forced into the fields. But the revival is well underway. Across this land of green rice paddies, shining blue waters, great wandering rivers and lush forests, the people of Cambodia are learning and re-learning the arts of their ancestors. The revival is occurring with the assistance of long-term Government rural development programs, and is complemented by national and international non-government community development programs throughout the Kingdom.

The Sobbhana foundation –founded by Her Royal Highness Princess Norodom Mari Ranariddh in 1983 as a shelter of war orphans in a refugee camp on the Thai border –now operates three training centers in Phnom Penh. It is named in honor of Samdech Rasmi Sobbhana, the Royal Aunt of King Norodom Sihanouk , who dedicated her life to social action -in particular, the education of women and children. The Foundation signifies the important role the Royal family plays in culture and the arts. Since its establishment, the Foundation has trained more than 4.000 women in weaving, embroidery and sewing, passing on skills and at the same time reviving the arts of Khmer ancestors –silk weaving, basket making, wood carving, silver working and stone sculpting.

Silver boxes in fruit and animal motifs are classically Khmer.


Travel to Kampong Luoung, the old Royal port in Kandal Province, where villagers craft intricate silver bowls in the shapes of fruits, elephants, deer, wild pigs, fish and goats.
Or they fashion fine plates and trays, cutlery and candlesticks. The villages have specialized in silver work for centuries, says Ros Chan Thou, who retails their work in Phnom Penh and wholesales it to Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines. The silver is imported from Singapore and Hong Kong but the craft is pure Khmer, ornate filigree work passed on from early generations. Silversmithing reached

Silversmithing reached its height during the 11th century when the crafted objects were used primarily by Royalty and the upper class for ceremonial purposes, funerary and religious rituals.

Go west of Seam Reap province again. Down a dirt road through sparkling rice paddies you will find weavers at every house. In the shade under one stilt house, three generations of women laugh and gossip while their fingers deftly shape pencil-thick reeds into traditional platters, baskets, plates and bowls. They range in age from 15-year-old Chon Noy to 57-years-old Heang Nung, who learned the craft from her mother and grandmother. Weaving steadily from dawn to dusk, they produce a plate in two days for sale locally, and big baskets for export to neighboring Thailand.
They harvest the vines themselves, trekking off toward the jungle and returning at night with material to


An intricate weave is a specialty of Siem Reap province

last several days. At dusk, one can easily see bicycles packed with the day's harvest returning to the villages. They do all the work. Chun Neng, 18, cross-legged in a traditional sarong, skillfully strips thin threads for weaving, running them along a razor–sharp knife.

A few meters down the road five teenage girls sit in a thatched lean-to at roadside, with a fat pink-and-gray pig asleep at their feet. They weave small bowls with "legs" used to make offerings at pagodas, weddings and other occasions. Each makes three bowls a day, and sells them to help contribute to the livelihood of the family. They sit along the roadside; they giggle to attract customers. Their marketing plan is simple, but effective, as their day’s production sell quickly. It is a small triumph of art and business in a distant rice paddy, but it is part of a larger success across the country, the revival of tradition, and the rebirth of native art.

Wood carvings reflect strong spiritual beliefs with roots in animism – from the pillars of a house to the elaborate motifs of moons, stars, fruits and flowers. Houses are built with great attention given to the pillars, each having its own spirit, that of a woman and the roofs feature elaborate carved motifs. Miniature "spirit houses"-used to make offerings of food, flowers and incense- are strategically placed at homes and other buildings. Boxes and other carvings are used for ornamentation and furniture.

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