July 26, 2023
PHNOM PENH – In a busy workshop, sparks twinkle like fireflies as Ou Vanndy meticulously handles his tools. In a mesmerising dance of creation, he transforms discarded parts from old motorcycles and bicycles into works of art, illuminating a profound message of environmental consciousness.
His sculptures are not just a statement of art but also of advocacy, reducing solid waste while spreading knowledge and love for the environment.
In late 2022, Neth Pheaktra, secretary of state and spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, voiced concerns about solid waste management in Cambodia.
He revealed that the nation generates over 10,000 tonnes of rubbish daily, with the solid waste volume increasing by approximately 10 to 15 per cent each year. This waste litters various locations, including water sources and public areas, hence the government’s ongoing efforts to address the issue.
In a press conference held last year on October 31, Pheaktra shed light on the Ministry of Environment’s forward-thinking plans and partnerships with sub-national authorities.
The shared ambition of these collaborations is to revolutionise solid waste management and elevate landfill practices to create a more sustainable and clean environment.
Vanndy’s most recent work of art, a formidable iron Hanuman standing 2.4m tall and spanning 1.6m in width, is a testament to his commitment to both artistic expression and environmental stewardship.
With a profound admiration for ancient Khmer art and culture fuelling his creativity, Vanndy is actively involved in preserving ancestral heritage.
He skilfully navigates the transition from traditional to contemporary sculpture, while maintaining the intrinsic values of traditional design and form.
“Rather than casting off old metal deemed no longer useful, we can breathe new life into it, crafting something of value once more,” declared Vanndy.
The artist continued: “This purposeful endeavour not only aids in reducing solid waste but also serves as an educational tool, nurturing love for our environment, while fostering a sense of order and harmony”.
Vanndy’s iron Hanuman stands tall as a symbol of transformation, embodying environmental awareness, and bridging the past and the present while projecting a brighter, more sustainable future.
The sculpture, which took nearly two years to complete, is testament to the artist’s meticulous craftsmanship and dedication. Built entirely from recycled motorcycle parts, the sculpture weighs over 400kg and exudes a sense of strength and elegance.
After making its debut at a meeting of leaders in Lomhach commune, Kandal province, the Hanuman sculpture underwent further refinement.
“I worked alone on this creation, considering feedback from others to make necessary adjustments, ensuring the artwork reached its full potential,” Vanndy revealed.
The industrious artist collects metal, spare parts, motorcycles, and old bicycles from villagers, using only scrap materials for his sculptures, despite now having to pay for most of them.
Embracing the challenge of imbuing traditional Khmer style and decorations on to discarded materials, he acknowledges the difficulty but isn’t deterred.
Before installation, Vanndy meticulously plans and draws the phases, considering it the most crucial step.
“Though the ornamental design on this metal sculpture isn’t as beautiful as the real thing, it’s still attractive,” he explained.
Finding old metal parts in the desired shape is a challenge. Motorcycle repair shops usually sell the hardware as a whole, and are reluctant to break them down for specific needs. This means increased costs for Vanndy involving transportation, brushing, and cleaning of the hardware to match his design.
Until now, the metal sculptor has faced limitations in using metal parts, often restricted to bicycles and motorbikes due to the high cost of car parts and the lack of welding equipment. Furthermore, his small workshop space is not suitable for storing car parts.
Vanndy’s metal sculptures, encompassing themes such as oxen, ploughs, traditional dances, elephants, Apsara, and Hanuman, have graced various events and hotels with their presence.
AKs into peace art
Vanndy, a talented artist born in Kandal province in 1977, honed his skills at the Royal University of Fine Arts, earning his degree in sculpture in 2005. From 2003 to 2005, he was an integral part of the Peace Art Project Cambodia, an initiative where he mastered metalwork and utilised AK-47s, transforming them into peace-symbolising sculptures.
These distinctive sculptures ingeniously morph the infamous assault rifle into depictions of Cambodia’s traditional emblem – the elephant, a creature of monumental importance in the construction of Angkor Wat.
Following his transformative work with the Peace Art Project Cambodia, Vanndy has contributed to various other initiatives, notably creating a potent Naga monument crafted from small arms.
Presently, he is expanding his artistic repertoire by studying contemporary stone carving with the Krousar Selapak, a vibrant collective of artists fondly referred to as the “art family”.
Recognising that his smaller metal sculptures weren’t commanding a strong market presence, Vanndy made the strategic decision to pause his sculpture production for four years following the completion of a particular project.
However, in 2009, fuelled by the support of restaurant owners and governmental bodies, he revitalised his artistic endeavours, focusing on creating larger, more impactful sculptures.
His innovative, reclaimed-art sculptures have since found display spaces in various locations, attracting both admiration and applause.
Vanndy’s crowning achievement was the sale of his impressive ox statue to the National Bank, where it now stands on prominent display.
Sharing his feelings about this accomplishment, he said: “I’m deeply grateful to the National Bank for not only acquiring but also showcasing my work. It’s not often an artist’s creation finds a home within a prestigious state institution. This recognition fills me with immense pride.”
Reflecting on his portfolio of notable projects, Vanndy highlighted a 6m high, five-tonne statue of the Goddess of Peace and Development located in Battambang, ingeniously crafted from recycled war waste.
Additionally, he brought attention to a commanding copper statue exceeding 2m in height, located in Sihanoukville. He expressed gratitude for the substantial support he received from business leaders and government officials who value and encourage the elevation of Cambodian art, particularly his unique approach to utilising recycled materials.
“Many individuals who have seen my previous projects, such as the ox sculptures, have shown interest and even commissioned additional pieces because they appreciate the art,” Vanndy told The Post.
He added, “I’ve shared some of my artwork on social media, and those who admire it can contact me to place orders”.
Looking beyond his recent Hanuman sculptures, Vanndy has set his sights on a new creation connected to Khmer martial arts. This forthcoming piece, a robust Kun Khmer boxer standing over 2m tall, will continue his unique approach of fashioning striking sculptures from recycled metal.