Art in Cambodia goes back centuries to the Angkor days. Several styles of traditional art were once the very heart of day-to-day living and functionality, whether you made it, used it, wore it, or merely admired it. The Khmer Rouge took away all of the arts practices – artists, musicians, and writers were killed for their craft. However, after they left power, the arts slowly started to make a comeback. Different schools for learning the traditional arts were established, as well as learning contemporary art.
Textiles are an important part of Cambodian life. Silk weaving has been practiced for centuries, given Cambodia’s proximity to the famous Silk Road. When it comes to weaving, there are two main techniques. The first is called ikat (no, not another Apple product), which is basically dying the weft yarn (the horizontal strands in fabric) in order to make designs. The designs vary from region to region. It’s somewhat of a long, complex process. The other is called uneven twill, a process of taking two or three colors of yarn and weaving them in such a way that one color will be dominant on one side of the fabric and the other one (or two) will show on the other side. The dye they used came from natural elements.
Besides silk, cotton is also highly popular. Some of the more popular woven items are a sampot (wrap skirts, similar to a sarong), pidan (tapestries with pictures woven into them), and krama (traditional headscarves worn by both men and women). Basket weaving, wicker and rattan arts are also prevalent.
Stone carving goes back to the Angkor days and was used to decorate the temple walls and surrounding areas. Some can be quite elaborate and intricate in design. It’s become somewhat of a lost art, but efforts are being made to try to bring it back. Likewise, lacquerware and silversmith work are two other arts that are starting to make a comeback into the arts world as well.
Kite-making and the kite-flying tradition is one that spans across Asia on a whole. In Cambodia, they sometimes attach small pipes onto the kite so that when the wind blows, it makes a whistling sound. They call these singing kites. The tradition goes back centuries, but in the past 20 years or so, kite-flying competitions take place with several competitors and many spectators alike, ranging from the young to the young-at-heart.
Of course, drawing, painting, and sculpting of a more modern, European style are also highly regarded as well. Especially in the years after the Khmer Rouge, art production and art education took off, and several art museums were rebuilt in Phnom Penh and other major cities. Some of the artists that have made a name for themselves are Chhim Sothy, Chath Piersath, Chhan Dina.
The first texts in Khmer were mainly religious texts (such as translations/ transliterations of the Tripitaka), written by Buddhist monks as well as court documents and stone-carved scripts at temples. There was also a strong tradition of folklore and storytelling in Cambodia. Most of these stories were passed down verbally from generation to generation. Many of the topics were deeply laden in Buddhist themes and proverbs. The ancient Hindu epic poems were also a source for inspiration as well. “Reamker” is a Cambodian version of one of these poems that has been adapted to both theatre and dance.
One of the first famous writers – perhaps because he was the king as well – was King Ang Duong. Two of his well-renowned works, both inspired from the Jataka tales (stories told about the previous births of the Buddha), are “Kakey” and “Puthisen Neang Kong Rei.”
After the French took over Cambodia, written language took on another level. The French were controlling, but they did help establish and produce printed Khmer literature by creating the movable blocks for the Khmer script to be used on a printing press, the first Khmer language book being published in 1908. They also transformed their educational system as well, giving more students a chance to learn to read and write.
Writers and Cambodian literature on a whole also suffered the same fate from the Khmer Rouge days. One of the more well-known Cambodian authors today is Somaly Mam. Her beginnings were bleak, being essentially orphaned, not even sure which year she was born. She was taken in by a man she had to call “grandfather” (a sign of respect) who abused her and enslaved her before selling her to a brothel at the age of 14. She was then forced to marry a soldier in the Khmer Rouge, a man she had never met, who beat her and raped her repeatedly. She had to prostitute herself, sometimes five or six times a day just to make ends meet, and if she refused, she faced a barrage of torturous beatings. In fact, her best friend at that time was brutally murdered in front of her. She managed to escape, and a French aid worker helped her relocate to France where she later married a French national. Although she went through all of this, it did not deter her from helping other women caught in the sex trafficking trade throughout Cambodia and Southeast Asia. Her memoirs are written in The Road of Lost Innocence. She also founded The Somaly Mam Foundation in 2007 as a non-profit based in the US who helps organize anti-trafficking groups and assists in helping women and girls escape from sexual slavery. Please visit their website; there is a lot of information on the sex slave trade, what the foundation is doing, and how you can help: www.somaly.org.
Up next: music and dance