Cambodian ministry sheds light on traditional lacquer art

“If there is no plan to revitalise this art, there may be a decline in artists and the art could disappear from the community altogether”, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art said.

Pann Rethea

Pann Rethea

The Phnom Penh Post


Chhim Sothy (second from right), head of the department of fine arts and handcrafts, poses with Khmer lacquerware. culture ministrty

August 23, 2022

PHNOM PENH – Lacquer mask or face mask is a type of classical Khmer art that was very popular in ancient times, for instance the Longvek era. Seen during theatrical performances, the masks are made for characters in Khmer mythology Reamker, such as Hanuman, Preah Ream (Rama), Preah Leak (Lakshmana), Krong Reap (Ravana) and monkey warriors. It is also designed for artistes portraying Ream Eyso – the “storm demon” – who epitomises thunder in the folklore “Ream Eyso and Moni Mekhala”.

Nowadays, the popularity of lacquer seems to be declining, as less and less people take notice of this art form. However, a small segment of the young generation still cherishes the art of lacquer and don’t want it to disappear.

Chhim Sothy, chief of the Department of Fine Art and Handicrafts under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Art, is expected to head a consultation workshop with industry experts and keen art enthusiasts on Khmer Art Lacquerware on August 25.

“We have invited experts from the community of Kampong Thom province’s Stoung district, where they are still working on lacquer art until now, to share their expertise on this art,” he said, adding that the number of participants is limited to 100 as a precautionary measure against Covid-19.

Speaking to The Post, Sothy said the workshop is aimed at keeping the art alive and raising its popularity as it was in the past, seeing that Cambodia’s neighbours have maintained the art form until now. In addition, the workshop hopes to revitalise Khmer cultural heritage and encourage its continued production among artists.

“Due to the low interest in lacquer art, there are not many artists. If there is no plan to revitalise this art, there may be a further decline in artists and the art could disappear from the community altogether.

“So we want to inspire our young generation to understand [the importance of this art] and share the knowledge regarding the raw ingredients of the art of lacquer, which is extracted from a sacred plant called Lacquer Tree or resin tree,” he explained.

The workshop will bring together people with knowledge about lacquer, as well as those who use lacquer from plants while demonstrating techniques of using the resin for lacquer, a regular practice by some communities in Cambodia.

He said these communities have a long history of using lacquer for artwork.

As such, the department is working hard to revive and finding a strategy through the consultative workshop regarding lacquer art.

In addition, the workshop is eager to mobilise resources for scholars on the art of lacquer to continue this ancient cultural heritage through the display of lacquer art objects in festivals and exhibitions that use lacquer resin.

Sothy said the attentive display of objects related to the art of lacquer would pique people’s interest in the long run, who may want to learn about its benefits.

The workshop would also inform the international community that Cambodia is the home for the sacred plant and Khmer lacquer art.

In ancient times, the lacquer’s resin was used as paint for objects. It was used on artefacts, to decorate objects and architecture in pagodas, on religious items and the accessories of the royalty, said Sothy.

“According to old inscriptions and what we have seen on sculptures of ancient times, the lacquer’s resin has been used since the 6th century,” he shared.

The use of lacquer is evident on Buddha statues and other deities such as Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu.

In fact, the Buddha and Vishnu statues of the 6th century in the Angkor Borei area of Takeo province are proof that they were already in use, so the plants must have been in existence in Khmer territory since then.

A combination photo of Khmer lacquerware (left) and the tree the resin is made from. Hong Menea

“We can also say that it was used on various other things as there were people living in those areas. It is obvious that Khmer people who were influenced by the religion from India, used lacquer to paint on Buddha and Hindu statues to maintain the beauty and quality of the sculptures for a long time.

“Based on the use of lacquer art on the statues in Cambodia, we can say that it was used before and after the Angkorian period, although it seems less now,” he said.

Sothy hoped that Cambodians would appreciate the benefits of lacquer trees now and in future.

In the Angkorian period, according to old writings, tonnes of resin were exported. Even in the present day, the Vietnamese buy it from communities in Kampong Thom province.

The trees produce lots of resin as it grows in the tropics, reaching heights of 30m. Its stem has branches where resin can be extracted and used as natural paint on objects to look shiny.

Black resin is extracted from its bark or twigs, and can also be used as a remedy for skin ailments.

“They are important to our society. Firstly, lacquer trees, which can be found in mountains and brushwood, enable local communities to extract resin and sell it abroad. This can increase their income.

“The second benefit is that our Khmer resin can be processed and used as a natural paint on wooden or stone sculptures, which is of better quality than chemical paint. Resin can maintain the quality for a long time and does not have much impact on human health and the environment. The resin has two colours, black and red, which are shiny and can retain colour [for a long time],” he said.

Having said that, for lacquer art, resin alone cannot make the paint beautiful. “If we want a beautiful colour, we need to add snails, glass and gold leaf to make it stand out more.”

Thirty two-year-old Samrith Pitou, a Khmer lacquer sculptor with almost 10 years experience, said that before one starts making lacquer, they must first find out which character the lacquer is being made for.

He said it is necessary to clearly understand the face of the character. “In order to understand the shape of the face, one must first draw it out on paper before making a mould for the character.”

There are two types of mould – male and female – but Cambodians prefer using female moulds rather than male moulds because they last longer. Making the mould is similar to pouring concrete, though craftsmen use clay in this case.

Following that, the clay and steel are removed from the mould which is then sandpapered. It is then soaked in water to prepare for the sticking process.

“For the sticking process, we need several materials such as paper, brush and special glue made from flour and water. First, we take a sheet of paper that was soaked in water and spread it all over the insides of the mould.

“Then, we have to take another sheet of paper to cover it. That’s one layer. We have to do 30 to 40 layers depending on the quality of the lacquer that we want,” Pitou said.

When the desired thickness of the layer for the mask is attained, it would have to dry in the shade for one day before it is removed from the mould and cleaned. Some parts such as “ears”, “fangs”and “crowns” are also taken out to allow for painting and “cushioning” of the image.

“Finally, we apply the lacquer’s resin coating on the face mask. This resin is extracted from lacquer trees which are abundant in Kampong Thom province. We also use pine resin in Kampong Speu province. After painting, we make a sculpture, affix the gold layer and clean it. Sculpting is to be the last stage,” Pitou said.

The craftsman said he spends between one and three weeks to finish one face mask, which can cost around $80 to $100, depending on the raw materials and the quality. Unfortunately, he said, there is not much market demand now but he remains driven.

“What motivates me is my love for this art and the aspiration for it to grow. I still love and care for it and do it unconditionally, although I’m a graduate and that this job does not pay much,” he said.

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