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The leathery lace of a forgotten art

FOR those who don’t fancy sitting through the seven consecutive nights of theatre that Sbek Thom (which literally translated means “large leather”) shadow puppets are traditionally made for, a new Phnom Penh exhibition offers a rare opportunity to get a close-up look at an art form that is thought to date back to Angkorian times and is now in danger of being lost.

The exhibition at Equinox, a bar on Street 278, is simply titled Sbek Thom and consists of 28 puppet characters, most of which are hung leaning away from white walls and backlit to display the intricate lace-like patterns cut into the stiff leather.

Speaking during the opening last Friday evening, 44-year-old artist Ieng Hoeun, who created all the puppets in the exhibition, said that he and fellow artist Man Kosal may be the only people currently practicing the ancient art.

“I started making these puppets in 1989. The Ministry of Culture wanted me to make them because not very many people can do it,” he said. “There are only two people who make these puppets; there were three of us trained to make them, but one died.”

Sbek Thom puppets are up to a few metres tall and are sometimes made with whole cow or buffalo hides, which are cured and then cut into before being coloured with natural dyes.

Traditionally, the non- articulated puppets are attached to bamboo poles and manipulated by actors behind a white screen, which is backlit by a fire.

Ieng Hoeun said that he and his two fellow students had learned their craft in part by studying images of the puppets found on the walls of Angkor Wat, and that Sbek Thom puppets were usually modelled on one of around 150 characters copied from traditional representations of holy deities and animals.

Aditya Eggert, a researcher from the University of Goettingen’s Institute for Cultural and Social Anthropology in Germany who attended the opening, said Sbek Thom puppets are traditionally only used to perform versions of the Reamker, the Khmer version of epic Indian poem the Ramayana, which explores the theme of good and evil.

“The origin is said to be in the Angkorian period, 9th to 15th century, or maybe even earlier, and it is said to have been performed only in the Royal Palace and pagodas,” she said, and added that Sbek Thom theatre was limited to these venues because it was considered to be sacred.

The Reamker is also expensive to produce, she said, partly because of the length of the play –

which traditionally took place over seven nights but is now shortened for tourists – and partly because of the high cost involved in making Sbek Thom puppets.

“They are expensive and it takes around 150 puppets to perform the story,” she said.

Eggert said that all of these factors, along with the destruction of many Sbek Thom puppets during the Khmer Rouge regime, may have contributed to the demise of the art.

However, she added that, because of its sacredness and status as a royal art form, Sbek Thom shadow theatre is considered to be an important part of Khmer culture and was placed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2005.

“[The play] is supposed to educate people about good and evil,” she said. “It is considered to be sacred by the people.”

She said that there may be other Sbek Thom puppet-makers practicing besides Ieng Hoeun and Man Kosal, but noted that

the art was undoubtedly in danger of being lost.

“There are puppet makers in Siem Reap who can make the shadow puppets,” she said. “But they all slowly stop because they cannot make money from it.”

Ieng Hoeun said Sbek Thom puppet theatre was considered important in Khmer culture, but that many Cambodians may never have seen a performance or the puppets. He said this was the first time he had presented the puppets in an exhibition rather than a theatre show, and that he hoped

it would be seen by a lot of people. “I want to show everyone that Sbek Thom is part of our heritage,”

he said. “Some people have only heard of Sbek Thom but they have never seen it.”

Phoeung Kompheak, curator of the exhibition and operational director of the Kok Thlok Artists Association of which Ieng Hoeun is a member, said he had chosen the venue in part because it would allow the puppets to be seen by a wide range of people.

“I think this is the first time there has been an exhibition of shadow puppets in a bar,” he said. “There’s a good mix of Khmer and foreigners at Equinox; it’s not for foreigners only.”

Ieng Hoeun said he also hoped the exhibition would generate some funding so that he can ensure that the art does not disappear after his generation.

“If I can sell some puppets and make some money, I would like to teach children to make the puppets,” he said.

The exhibition will run for around six weeks at Equinox, 3A, Street 278. All puppets in the exhibition are for sale, ranging in price from around US$50 for a small puppet, up to around $1500 for the largest works.

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