In Spain, you see them dressed and moulded into kitsch and colourful flamenco dancers. In Vietnam, wistful girls wear ao dai. But there appears to be one national character Barbie and her imitators have not yet inhabited: the Apsara maiden.
In Siem Reap, where you would be hard pressed finding a craft not exploited for souvenir-selling, Cheab Sibora, 21, has been turning the iconic plastic Barbie doll into bejewelled, ikat-clad Apsara dancers for friends and family since 2011 but is now hoping to turn them over for profit.
The enterprising arts-and-crafter designs his Apsara dolls with traditional-looking Khmer fabric and miniature gold headdresses made by hand. Transforming the typically blonde, blue-eyed dolls with pointed toes and inhuman proportions into dark-haired Apsara figures requires special attention to every aspect of the doll’s outfit, Sibora explains.
“I spend time designing the clothes and matching them with Barbie’s face and hair. If I push myself, I can do it in 15 days but normally it takes around 60 days.
“The speed of my work depends on whether or not Barbie dolls are available from the market or the shop – sometimes they sell them second-hand or new, but sometimes they’re not available.”
The cost of the dolls depends on what model he can get his hands on – though he insists on using the genuine item.
“A second-hand Barbie doll costs $12 to $15, and a new one costs anything between $9 and $40 depending on quality. The cost of jewellery completely depends on the style, the importance of which rests on material design. My dolls are different from simple dolls that cost 2,500 riel [$0.63] because of the quality of the hair and face.”
Outside of his doll-making, Sibora was hoping to study in Phnom Penh but wasn’t able to get a scholarship. He’s now set to attend a private school in Siem Reap, where he wants to study languages. With support from his family, friends and the local press, he claims to be the only artist creating Apsara dancer dolls. So far he has created 10 traditionally dressed dolls and had displayed them at a local fashion design show.
Now that they’ve proved popular with the public, he’d like to move away from Barbie and find a more Khmer-looking doll to work with.
“I want to make more dolls, but my studies mean I’m too busy. But I plan to make Khmer dolls in the future rather than Barbies, and my family and friends are encouraging me to do this,” he says.
“Even though I’m trying, I can’t make a hundred per cent traditional Khmer face and hair because I got the dolls from other countries, particularly China. This means I have to darken the Barbies’ face and hair colour.”