Rouem Bunhak is an artist based in Siem Reap province who uses palm tree leaves to create pyrography artworks. For those who are unfamiliar with pyrography, it is the art of burning designs on the surface of natural materials, with most artists using wood as a canvas. However, instead of using wood, Bunhak weaves palm leaves to create his canvas. Som Kanika has an exclusive interview with the artist about his work and his untold journey.
Rouem Bunhak, 42, has been committed to his mission of promoting Khmer culture and artwork through pyrography for more than 13 years.
“Palm trees are well known as part of Cambodian national identity, and their leaves play a significant role in our culture, lifestyle and daily lives. Our people use palm leaves to make roofs for houses, weave baskets, hats and many other things. So I thought, why not turn this valuable plant into art,” he says.
Bunhak states that he discovered his technique by chance at a time when he had almost given up on his passion as an artist.
Thirty years ago after finishing Grade 10, I came to Phnom Penh to study art and work as a painter in front of Samakki Market. I opened a painting shop for a while until it closed due to a lack of business, he adds.
Even though the painting field was proving hopeless, Bunhak still needed money to support himself. In 2007, he began working in a relative’s noodle shop where he accidentally discovered the idea of pyrography on palm leaves when clearing up outside the shop.
“One day I was collecting palm leaves to burn as there were lots piling up in front of the shop, and as I watched them burning I saw the shapes of the forest and animals burnt into the leaves. That was when I came up with the idea of pyrography,” he says, adding that when you are born with an artistic mind you used a lot of your imagination.
That was when Bunhak began to use his new technique to develop his drawing skills and to step into the art field again. His effort and commitment began to pay off as more and more people began to recognise his artworks and acknowledge his talent.
In 2016, Bunhak was invited by the Ministry of Commerce to participate in the National Angkor Sangkran Exhibition, and in the same year, he also got the opportunity to present his work to the King during the Royal Plowing Ceremony in front of the Terrace of the Elephants in Siem Reap province.
Despite his achievements, Bunhak has faced challenges selling and producing each piece of art.
“This job requires a lot of effort as I need to spend at least eight to 10 hours making each piece,” he says, adding that some people still do not understand how much work goes into creating art.
Bunhak needs to sit and heat a poker for hours before being able to draw on the palm leaves. Over the past 13 years, Bunhak has painted more than 10,000 works for sale.
When observing the pyrography of Bunhak, you see depictions of many stories about Cambodian society, from the floating villages of Tonle Sap Lake to the rural scenery of Cambodia.
Only experts and experienced hands can master this skill and turn raw palm leaves into elegant masterpieces.