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Art benefits mine-clearing hero


Landmine clearer and CNN Hero finalist Aki Ra spoke at the opening of a sculpture exhibition in Siem Reap. Photo by: Ros Sambol
Twisted torsos feature prominently in artist Blake’s sculptures, now on show at the Hotel de la Paix in Siem Reap until November 3. The show, titled Fragments, moves to Phnom Penh on November 5 at Meta House. Photo by: Ros Sambol

CNN Top 10 Hero Aki Ra spoke about his experiences both as a child soldier and clearing landmines during the opening of an exhibition by international sculptor Blake in Siem Reap.

“I want to clear all the landmines in Cambodia, to help make peace and to help the children survive and give new life,” Aki Ra told guests at the opening of the show called Fragments at Hotel de la Paix.

His Cambodian Self Help Demining Team will receive all funds raised by the exhibition’s sales and donations. The show runs until November 3 in Siem Reap before opening in Phnom Penh at Meta House on November 5.

The opening evening was a double win for Aki Ra, who later learned he had been selected as a finalist in CNN’s Top 10 Heroes from among thousands of people worldwide.

Aged 10, Aki Ra became a child soldier for the Khmer Rouge regime, which taught him to lay landmines. Later he worked for UNTAC helping to map and clear mines, and founded his own NGO to clear farmland and give new life to those working in Cambodia’s rural areas.

Artist Blake, who is known only by a single name, has crafted sculptures of beautiful but blasted human bodies. It’s fitting that the exhibition opened in Siem Reap, which is where Blake first learned that the many limbless people he saw in Cambodia and Vietnam were continuing casualties of wars long finished, and the landmines that were laid to fight them.

In the hotel’s Arts Lounge last Thursday, dry ice hung in the air over the shattered sculptures. Attendees were fascinated by the works, which sell for between $19,000 and $30,000.

The sculptures themselves take an extraordinarily long time to create, as Blake relies on ancient techniques used by the Greeks and Romans for casting bronzes.

Casting call
Each piece usually takes about a year to finish. Models spend between 60 to 100 hours posing, while Blake slowly carves their silhouettes out in clay, which then goes through several processes of casting in plaster, wax, rubber and porcelain before it is ready for the final bronze pouring. It’s a devotional act that drives home the importance of his message.

Blake was teaching at the Fine Arts University in Hanoi in 2003 when he took a few weeks out to tour around the region. He recalls being shocked at the number of amputees he encountered, but that shock turned to horror when he found out the real cause of their awful injuries.

“I was so upset by it all. I remember watching the Vietnam War on TV when I was a kid. It should have been over, but here it was, still taking casualties,” he said.

The artist took that horror home with him, where he set about trying to develop something that would help to bring this tragedy to an end.

By 2007, the result was a series of 19 sculptures of the human form that are beautiful in form and execution, except that each shows the ravaging consequences of an encounter between a soft, vulnerable human body and the indiscriminate destruction of these dreadful weapons. Each sculpture is named after a different kind of landmine.

This is art that aims to raise awareness and to raise funds to help educate vulnerable communities and clear fields of mines. The evening started with a short film showing projects supported by the money raised so far, almost US$250,000 now. Then Blake spoke about the need to keep raising awareness of this issue.

“The issue had been forgotten after [Princess] Diana died. Since then, everyone thought it was resolved and people switched focus. Ecology and a green future became the priority. But there is no land more contaminated than a minefield,” Blake said. At current rates of clearance, it would take 1,000 years to clear all the landmines in the world, he added.

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