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Khmer Sculpture: An Art of Love and Temperament

Moeun Chhean Nariddh / Khmer Times Share:
May Chamnab sculpting a lion king. KT/Moeun Chhean Nariddh

“I saw the angel in the marble and I chiselled until I set it free,” so says the famous 16th-century Italian sculptor Michelangelo.

Indeed, Khmer sculptors have done the same since the Angkorian period in the 12th century – sculpting Hindu gods, Buddhist statues, King Jayavarman VII and other human and animal statues.

Though the skills take years to learn and decades to master, some young Cambodians have shown their interest in preserving the ancient Khmer arts. Three such sculpture enthusiasts are May Chamnab, Oeun Koan and Seng Hong, who sculpt at a workshop in Kandal province’s Mouk Kampoul district, about 25 kilometres northeast of Phnom Penh.

Chamnab, a 38-year-old sculptor who hails from Kratie province, says he has been creating sculptures for about ten years and is getting more skilful from day-to-day.

“I had learned from my master and now I have been teaching two young apprentices,” he says, pointing his finger at Koan and Hong.

Khmer sculptures at a workshop in Kandal province’s Mouk Kampoul district. KT/Moeun Chhean Nariddh

At the start, Chamnab says an apprentice builds his sculpting knowledge and skills about ten percent every year and will become quite skilful in ten years.

“Now, I can do 80 percent of the sculpting on a statue and my master will do the polishing and finish the work,” he says.

Chamnab says not all people want to become sculptors and make sculpting their life-long career.

“Only people who love this work and have a temperament in art can do it,” he continues. “I have been interested in this skill since I was young.”

Chamnab, who earns $400 as a monthly salary, says sculpting is quite tiring and requires a lot of effort.

“You need to be patient and stay focused,” he says.

“And it takes a long time to finish a statue,” he continues, adding that a large $3,000 Buddhist statue being sculpted by his two apprentices will take one month to complete.

For apprentices, Chamnab says they will start chiseling a stone into the shape of a statue based on the lines he draws.

“Sometimes, they make mistakes,” he says. “So, I need to constantly keep an eye on their work.”

Oeun Koan and Seng Hong hard at work. KT/Moeun Chhean Nariddh

Chamnab says a sculptor will see what kind of different statue can be sculpted if the apprentices make a big mistake and chisel a big chunk of stone away.

As he is polishing a $200 statue of a lion king, his two apprentices, Kaon and Hong, are working on a large stone which is slowly taking shape as a meditating Buddhist statue.

Now aged 22, Koan says he has been doing the sculpture work for six years and has learned some 60 percent of the skills.

“I can sculpt the statues of many animals,” he says. “But I still cannot sculpt the statue of King Jayavarman VII.”

Kaon says the sandstone is brought all the way from Preah Vihear province near the Cambodian-Thai border.

“I like this work because we can help preserve the cultural heritage of our ancestors,” he says, adding that he is paid $200 a month and hopes he will be paid more when he becomes more experienced.

Among the three sculptors, Hong is the youngest and least skilful.

Just aged 16, Hong says he has been learning how to sculpt stone statues for six months.

“I just help my senior sculptors chisel a stone into the shape of a statue and they will finish the work,” says Hong as he is chiselling the large Buddhist statue with Koan.

Like his senior sculptors, Hong, who receives $100 a month plus free meals and accommodation, says he is proud to learn the skills that have been passed on since the Angkorian period.

According to a website, most Khmer art is linked with Hinduism or Buddhism and was greatly influenced by Indian art.

“Nearly all the Khmer art that remains with us today is in the form of sculpture and most of this is stone sculpture associated with temples,” reads the website.

“Some of the greatest stone carving and bronze work in human history” was made by the Khmers, an art critic by the name Robert Hughes is quoted as saying.

He says its appeal was its “scale, continuity and shear aesthetic majesty,” while other art critics have used words like “tranquillity, spirituality and sereneness” to describe the attraction of Khmer art.

Unfortunately, the website says in the 1,000-year history of Khmer art, not one single name of an artist or sculptor has ever been recorded.

Unlike a painting on which a Cambodian painter usually writes his name, senior sculptor Chamnab says a Cambodian sculptor rarely writes his name on a statue.

However, he says he still feels happy when people come to buy his statues or commission a Buddhist statue.

“As a Buddhist, I feel that I also receive religious merits when people order a Buddhist statue to be sculpted,” says Chamnab, looking at the large statue of Buddha his apprentices are chiselling.

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