Reviving the ancient art of Khmer ceramists

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To better understand the construction techniques and challenges of ancient Khmer potters, ceramist master Serge Rega founded the National Centre for Khmer Ceramics Revival (NCKCR) in Siem Reap province.

Mr Rega’s big challenge was to revive a lost art form, destroyed during the time of the Khmer Rouge.

In January 2007 the Department of Monuments and Archeology of the Apsara Authority, together with the National University of Singapore, conducted an archaeological excavation of the Thnarl Mrech kiln sites. The reconstruction of the kiln was undertaken by the NCKCR in collaboration with the excavation team.

Mr Rega, at that time had only five people working on rebuilding the kiln.

Ten years later, things have moved on dramatically. The ancient kiln has been reconstructed, and now NCKCR has close to 70 people producing high-quality traditional Khmer ceramics, used in posh restaurants and five-star hotels throughout Cambodia and overseas.

The NCKCR has also changed its name to the Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts centre. The centre is an organisation aiming to rediscover and reintroduce Khmer ancestral pottery techniques and supports the development of contemporary Khmer ceramic art.

“I saw that there are some villages in Kampong Chhnang province where people do pottery. It’s a bit different from our pottery ceramics. It needs higher temperature when firing and stronger color and clay,” said Sam Navarro, the centre’s director.

The centre also creates economic opportunities, which helps reduce poverty in Cambodia, and does not discriminate in its employment opportunities. There are about 27 disabled staff, working as potters, in Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Centre. Most of them are from the Krousa Thmey organisation, which is in a partnership with the centre.

“Although they are disabled, they are really artistic with their hands. I also think that it is important to employ them because they are able to do a good job, get a good salary, and also express themselves,” said Mr Navarro.

“Society always looks down on them but we do not discriminate because of their disability. Working in the centre always gives them an inspiration in their artistic expression,” he added.

Mr Navarro recalled the first time the centre had deaf employees.

“People might think that it is really hard to communicate with them. However, when people are together and have a common interest to learn, they all can figure out and speak the same silent language.

“I think it’s easy to communicate with them, if they want to learn. Problems arise when they don’t want to learn, and it’s not due to their disability.”

Mr Navarro pointed out that there are three types of products in Khmer Ceramics & Fine Arts Centre. The first are traditional style products used during the 17th century – like temple roof tiles, for instance. The second are souvenirs for tourists and the third are ceramic products used in posh restaurants and five-star hotels – like plates, cups, bowls and teapots.

According to Mr Navarro, it takes more than a month to produce fine ceramic products.

“They go through many processes including clay-filtering, drying, throwing, trimming, carving, firing, colour-glazing and at least two firings.”

Khmer ceramics have come a long way since Mr Rega’s efforts to revive an ancient kiln under the auspices of the then NCKCR.

“If people look back to the past 10 years, the ceramic products weren’t popular and valued by Cambodian people. Now things are different. There are many places producing ceramic products now,” said Mr Navarro.

Mr Navarro’s challenge now is to improve the quality of Khmer ceramics for foreign markets: “We want to export overseas and are currently eyeing more markets in Europe. Through exports, we will be able to better support Khmer potters and artists and generate income for the poor.”

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