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Woodcarvers keeping the dream alive

Neang Non, 25, learns carving from Chunnarth free, outside normal hours, with other students who cannot afford university fees.

A

t the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh a dedicated teacher is passing

on the ancient carving skills of Angkor to a small band of students.

Pok Chunnarth has been a woodcarver for more than 30 years. A confessed traditionalist,

he follows the ancient decorative styles of the Angkor period. His ambition, he says,

is to keep alive the knowledge of traditional wood sculpture for the next generation.

To that end he teaches classes at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh.

In a narrow building, 45-year-old Chun-narth and his small group of students work

at perfecting their craft. Wood chips cover the floor, a product of the rhythmic

beating of hammers on chisels.

Rough cuts of wood are stacked against the walls. Works-in-progress include graceful

Apsara dancing figurines and chunky elephants.

"I learned to carve wood from my father," Chunnarth says. "But when

I first asked him to teach me, he refused. He said that knowledge of art would not

make me rich, and told me it would prove too difficult to learn."

Chunnarth decided to spend his free time after school learning to fashion wood.

"I can still remember when I showed him a piece I had carved," he says.

"He praised me saying that I clearly had skill."

After that his father decided to teach him what he knew.

Chunnarth started carving for a living in 1970, selling numerous pieces to customers

in France and the United States, as well as supplying a burgeoning local market.

People were generally better off, he says, and could afford to spend some money on

art. During the Lon Nol regime, regular demand meant he had a reasonable standard

of living.

"I did not become rich from my work," he says, "but I was earning

enough to support my family." After the Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975, Chunnarth,

like so many others, worked the rice fields. In 1979 he went back to his home village

in Pursat province and carried on with his carving, unearthing the documents on technique

he had buried. Four years later he came to Phnom Penh and started training students

at the Royal University of Fine Arts.

Twenty-five-year-old Neang Non has spent the past year studying wood carving. He

cannot afford to attend the full-time university course, so Chunnarth teaches him,

and others, at no cost outside normal hours. Chunnarth, he says, has given him the

opportunity to learn.

"I hope one day that the skills I have learned here will be able to support

me," says Non. "Carving traditional Khmer arts will prove good business,

I think, when tourism booms." He hopes the government will promote carvings

as an integral part of traditional Khmer culture.

In Siyonda, director of the department of plastic arts and handicrafts at the Ministry

of Culture, says currently no law exists to protect businesses that rely on traditional

crafts. But his department is working on that and hopes to issue a draft sub-decree

next year.

"We are trying to promote our culture, so that anyone can do business based

on traditional culture," says Siyonda, "but the businesses must respect

our national standards."

He says the sub-decree will cover carvings in wood and stone, ensuring that traditional

carvings hold true to the techniques of those employed by their ancestors.

"Handicrafts not made in the traditional Khmer style will eventually be confiscated

or the makers fined if standards are not up to those seen in the originals,"

he says.

Holding to such strict ideals will not only protect and promote Khmer culture, he

adds, it will also allow many Cambodians to find work in the traditional crafts industry.

That suits Chunnarth, who has long wanted more action from the government in managing

and maintaining the traditional art of Angkor. Although many students have graduated

from his classes, he is worried that some do not treat what they have learned in

the painstaking manner that he does.

Pok Chunnarth works on woodcarvings. He wants more government action in managing and maintaining the traditional art of Angkor.

As part of his research, Chunnarth visits the ancient temples of Angkor Wat. He is

concerned at the wear and tear on the original carvings. Weather is responsible for

some of the damage and war has taken its toll too. Now, the increasing number of

tourists is also a factor.

"In some areas the artistic carvings on the walls are so worn that we can no

longer read them," he says.

As part of his plan to revive standards, Chunnarth plans to establish handicraft

schools in different provinces, particularly those bordering neighboring countries.

Numerous Khmer-style carvings have entered the local market in recent years from

Vietnam and Thailand. They are generally sold for less than the local artisans can

fashion them for.

"We have the same artistic styles flooding in from foreign countries,"

says Chunnarth. "However, the production is poor quality, which only causes

a loss to the reputation of skillful Khmer carving."

Simply put, he says, carving is not for everyone. A certain amount of talent is required,

along with direct teaching by a master.

 

"I have some skills, but I cannot compare with our ancestors. Look at what

they did: they built such remarkable temples and carved the statues of old with incredible

flair and decorations," he says.

Chunnarth has stern words for his students: "If the new generation of Khmer

carvers do not pay attention, they will lose all these traditional skills."

And Cambodia, he says, will be the poorer for it.

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