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A sculptor finds inspiration in the Cambodian alphabet

Even though a lot of focus is required for my small handiworks i am happy. I feel good working on it and it is an important ingredient in my work."

THE Khmer alphabet will be taking on a new, decidedly artistic guise this week when it becomes the subject of sculptures by Pich Sopheap, an artist who honed his skills at the University of Massachusetts in the US. The skilful artisan has separated himself entirely to prepare his new project, living solo since last year.

“I heard foreigners complain that it’s difficult to learn the Khmer language,” he said. “They want a sentence to be constructed word by word, and I hear many people complain about similar problems.

“I don’t think their ideas are appropriate because they simply want to delete this or delete that when they face a problem. Their complaints helped formulate the idea of doing sculptures of the alphabet.”

Pich Sopheap was born in Battambang province, but he and his family left for the US in 1984 via a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand, while the civil war was still raging. Sculpture had never interested him while he lived in the US, and upon his return to Phnom Penh in 2002, his exhibits consisted solely of paintings.

The experimental nature of any good artist soon caught up with him, though, and he began using an axe and knives to manipulate rattan, despite the fact that he initially had no idea what he was trying to make.

He has named his latest collection of sculptures Fragile, which would seem to be a nod to the durability of the materials used, yet Pich Sopheap insisted this is not the case.

“I decided to name the collection Fragile because I want to reflect the reality and various conditions of the people here,” he said.

His work to make such sculpture is not so different from the works of the Cambodian people in the countryside, especially farmers.

They usually make bamboo traps to catch fish in their rice fields. They work on them carefully, and their bamboo traps always look serious and hide the artistic work that went into making them.

Such a job is seen by many people as time-consuming and dull, but Pich Sopheap explained that, despite splitting and tying a great deal of rattan every day, he remains satisfied.

“Even though a lot of focus is required for my small handiworks I am happy. I feel good working on it and it is an important ingredient in my work,” he said.

There is still a long road ahead for the artist from Battambang, having completed, by his own estimate, just 30 percent of his projected total: It will take him another year to complete every element of the Khmer alphabet, but the work that goes on display today at the French Cultural Centre already holds its own.

Pich Sopheap is loath to project too much meaning onto his sculptures, with the aesthetic styling playing a prominent role in his decisions, and prefers instead to allow his audience to form their own ideas.

He said, “When I do something, I want to see its shape first rather than its meaning. After viewing, it’s up to people to come up with meaning on their own.”

Fragile opens at the French Cultural Centre (218 Street 184) tonight at 7pm and will run until June 12.

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