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Master craftsmen show skills with Apsaras

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The work of a sculptor shaping a human body from stone takes not only time, but also a fine eye to detail and superior craftsmanship.

Earlier this month, the Cambodian government commended three of these craftsmen for their outstanding Apsara-shaped sculptures, after announcing the winners of a national contest. 

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Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An handed out the three awards during the National Culture Day ceremonies on March 3 in Pailin province.

Top nod went to Banteay Meanchey native Nam Sopheak, second to Siem Reap sculptor Theam Chea and third place to Huon Sophea, from Kampong Thom.

The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts announced the competition earlier this year, calling for sculptures 47 centimetres in height representing the iconic Angkorian-era dancer.

Apsara figures refer to the statues found at ancient temples, adorned with garland crowns, beads, traditional sampot skirts with brocade pleats in the front, and bracelets on wrists and ankles.

Statues for the competition were required to be in a dancing pose.

“I learned to make sculptures of Buddha heads, Hanumans or Apsaras since I was 20. So I was already familiar with such sculpture,” said Huon Sophea, 34, the sculptor from Kampong Thom. “The style, craft or motif is in my mind.”

Huong Sophea found out about the sculpture competition in early February – ten days before the submission deadline.

Despite the fact that the limited time did not allow him to finish the craft detail at on the back of his Apsara, he came in third place and hopes to compete again next year.  

Theam Chea, 25, the second-place winner from Siem Reap town, copied the Apsara dance style from the statues at Banteay Srey temple.

The stone that he carved was brought from Banteay Meanchey province, and it took him more than 10 days to complete his sculpture.   

“The crafts, crowns or decorations of my Apsara can compete with the winning sculpture,” he said. “But one of my Apsara’s legs is slightly shorter. The winning Apsara looks perfect!”  

Still, coming in second is encouraging, considering this is his first time joining a competition.

The champion, Lam Sopheak, 25, took 12 days to carve his Apsara sculpture from stone he brought from a mountain behind his house in Banteay Meanchey’s Preah Net Preah district.

“I may have won first place because my Apsara has the real face of a Cambodian girl. Cambodian girls have large faces, low noses, curved eyebrows and strong lips. I carved the manners of the face of a Cambodian girl on my Apsara,” he said.

Lam Sopheak noted that his work plays an important role in conserving and disseminating Cambodian culture.

If modern artists do not continue their ancestors’ work of carving Apsara and other statues, they won’t be able to show their culture to other countries, he says.

His sculptures have been taken to many countries by foreigners visiting Siem Reap.

Each of his Apsara sculptures costs about US $170.

“I know that sculptors survive because of their clients, so we have to satisfy them. But that doesn’t mean we have to carve our Apsara statue differently from the pictures of ancient temples, because it can spoil the Apsara motif,” he said, insisting that sculptors stick to creating exact replicas.

“We are the preservers of classical statues.”

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