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Recarving an art niche in Cambodian culture


Master wood-carver Chan Sim survived the Khmer Rouge purging of artists and now passes on the tradition of Khmer woodcarving to the next generation

PROFESSOR Chan Sim watches keenly as his students delicately chip away at blocks of wood, using metal tools to shape it into figures, scenes and decorative lintels based on designs and motifs passed down for centuries.

The small gallery and workshop on Street 178 are Chan Sim's, as are the students who are among hundreds who study under the master wood-carver to learn the ancient practice of Khmer woodcarving in the hopes of one day opening their own successful woodworking studios.

The 73 year-old Chan Sim began his journey into the art world in 1950 when he enrolled at the Royal University of Fine Arts. He studied visual arts such as painting, sculpture and woodcarving as well as history and archaeology, and in 1957 was awarded a Bachelor of Fine Arts. In 1959 he started teaching at the university, specialising in teaching woodcarving until the onset of the civil war in Cambodia.

Rich tradition
"When I was in university, many people from all over the region wanted to learn Khmer arts, including many Thais and Laotians who attended the school," says Chan Sim.

"It is a rich tradition that is steeped in history and symbolism, and is aesthetically stunning. Unfortunately, during the war this all changed."

The Khmer Rouge regime deemed the traditional Khmer arts unnecessary to their socialist agrarian revolution and purged countless monuments, artistic works and educated artists during its 1975-1979 rule of the country.

Chan Sim survived this dark period by hiding his education, telling people he was a simple labourer carving doorways for houses. When senior Khmer Rouge officials brought him stencils and blueprints for woodcarvings with foreign lettering he pretended not to be able to read the characters despite his fluency in French and slight knowledge of English. "Before the war there were 40 master wood-carvers in Cambodia," he says. "Only four of us survived."

After the liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge, Chan Sim immediately began teaching woodcarving again, and in 1980 opened up his shop, Art of Khmer Angkor, that still stands today. He has made it his life's goal to teach the rich history and specialised techniques of traditional Khmer woodcarving.

Heavy Hindu influence
He explains, "Khmer woodworking can be traced back as far as the 6th century AD, and was heavily influenced by Indian styles and designs and images from the Hindu religious pantheon, and later Buddhism.

"During the Angkor period, skilled artists were called upon by the kings to contribute their work to the vast building plans at Angkor, and it was then that the four main design types of Cambodia were consolidated."

Khmer woodworking design motifs have typically used four main styles since the Angkor period: wind, water, land and air. Each style has unique defining aspects, and symbolises elements of the human experience.

The wind style uses graceful curlicues and motifs of clouds to represent life and breath. The water style uses images of plants, such as lotus flowers, lily pads and fish to symbolise the life-giving force of water. The land style symbolises the body and makes use of vines, flowers, tree stalks and plant stems while the fire style employs intricate flame designs and is mainly used in temples, funerals and cremation ceremonies as it represents war and death.

"Khmer style is quite different from Thai or Laotian styles," says Chan Sim. "For example, the Thai like to use the fire style in many of their wooden artworks.

"Everywhere you go in Thailand you see these designs, but for Cambodians, this style symbolizes very negative aspects, so we use it very carefully."

Chen Sim explains that Khmer woodcarving designs rely heavily on spirituality, and many are religious in nature. "The most powerful images are statues that are highly realistic, and these must be treated with respect as spirits are often fooled into thinking they are real, and will come to inhabit the object," he said.

Powerful symbolism
"To be a proper woodcarver you must be aware of the power of symbols, the styles and the designs as well as the history behind the art."

The master woodcarver has also compiled two comprehensive books titled Book for Learning to Draw and Sculpt by Yourself, parts I and II, both of which contain blueprints and grids of drawing scales for common Khmer design motifs and have been endorsed by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. In 2000, the Ministry awarded him a certificate designating him a Master of Khmer Fine Arts.

As for Chen Sim's students, many study for years under his tutelage either at Norton University or the Royal University of Fine Arts, or at his workshop at Arts of Khmer Angkor.

Nationwide input
"My students come from all over Cambodia, from every province," he said. "They are keen to learn woodcarving and sculpture in order to preserve and carry on this aspect of Khmer culture, and because it can be very lucrative. Many return to their home provinces after they have mastered the art and set up their own shops, distributing their works to shops throughout Cambodia."

Wooden statues at shops along Street 178 range in value, from US $3.00 for a small wooden apsara at Arts of Angkor up to US $20,000 for a life-size wooden elephant at nearby Kosal Gallery. Prices vary depending on size, quality of wood and the skills of the carver.

As Chen Sim walked around the workshop giving tips to the diligent students, he stopped at one young carver working on a wooden reproduction of the famous statue of Jayavarman VII and said: "Very nice; almost perfect!"

The student swelled with pride and continued his work with extra vigour, smiling broadly as he did so.

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