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Cambodia’s tiniest cultural costumier

Artist Chan Sophorn has made costumes for more than 350 dolls.
Artist Chan Sophorn has made costumes for more than 350 dolls. Athena Zelandonii

Cambodia’s tiniest cultural costumier

From a display case in 34-year-old artist Chan Sophorn’s cramped Meanchey district apartment stare hundreds of plastic dolls wearing meticulously crafted period costumes. Angkorian kings wear twinkling crowns and ceremonial k’bun loincloths and princesses glittering sombot dresses. Villagers carry fishing traps and little girls wear simple peasant skirts. There are even a couple of soldiers in fatigues.

Over the past five years, Sophorn has painstakingly stitched together the miniature wardrobes from scratch, as well as the more aristocratic models’ gold and silver accessories, all on his own dime. He even aims to keep hairstyles historically accurate.     

But while these dolls may have the unrealistic proportions and gormless smiles of Barbie and Ken, for Sophorn, they’re not just simple playthings.

“My goal is to show younger and future generations what our ancestors had in our history. And to avoid confusion with other neighbouring countries,” he said this week.

“Even if I die, I can preserve Cambodian identity for the next generations,” he said.

To see Chan Sophorn’s artwork, go to his Facebook page, Sophorn Cambodia Arts. To contact the artist call 096 456 9314.

The dolls used in the project were made in China and purchased from Thailand. All have poseable joints which allow for more expression and artistic flexibility.
The dolls used in the project were made in China and purchased from Thailand. All have poseable joints which allow for more expression and artistic flexibility. Athena Zelandonii
Both formal and traditional day-wear are on display in Sophorn's collection.
Both formal and traditional day-wear are on display in Sophorn's collection. Athena Zelandonii
Chan Sophorn has hand-made and styled over 350 different looks from across many centuries and locations in Cambodian history, art, and mythology.
Chan Sophorn has hand-made and styled over 350 different looks from across many centuries and locations in Cambodian history, art and mythology. Athena Zelandonii
Two of Sophorn's exquisitely detailed creations hold hands.
Two of Sophorn's exquisitely detailed creations hold hands. Athena Zelandonii
Sophorn has been making the dolls since 2012.
Sophorn has been making the dolls since 2012. Athena Zelandonii.

Sophorn, who recently finished up a masters in contemporary painting from a university in South Korea, said he was inspired to start the project after conducting field research on a number of temples in Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand prior to leaving for South Korea.

He then became fascinated with how different societies presented themselves and how fashions evolved over time.

“After I met old people and saw the old statues on the wall of each temple, I realised that there were more than 600 costumes for only the royal family at that time,” said the designer.

“Even while I was busy with contemporary painting and school projects [in South Korea], I was doing research on historic Khmer design patterns. I promised myself I would come back to it,” he said.

While Sophorn said that making money was important to him – the dolls are for sale for about $15 each – it was mostly a labour of love. Now he wants to show off his 350 creations.

“Unfortunately, I never get a chance to do exhibitions. I don’t understand the reason why galleries always refuse my requests,” he said. “But I never give up.”

“I really want to contribute my knowledge to Cambodian people, and I always remember what my parents said, ‘If you don’t help the country, please don’t destroy it’.”   

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