Copper sculptures, once thought of as old fashioned products, have been re-imagined by Madam Chnai, a shop which sells modern and unique decorative sculptures, including copper lamps and wall hangings. Chhouen Putheary, the founder, aims to preserve the art of Khmer copper sculpting as well as help women sculptors to earn income on their own.

Madam Chnai opened in late 2020. It originally sold bags made of dried water hyacinth and rattan, until a wedding brought about change.

Sitting in her office, 37-year-old, Putheary told The Post: “At first, I did not think of selling copper products, but then I met my husband, a copper producer from Kandal province. I met many women sculptors there, who were relying on their families for income,” she said.

“I wanted them to be independent, so I started thinking about how to use their strengths to help them earn their own incomes. I wanted to be a person who contributed to providing employment to Cambodian women and preserved the unique Khmer art of our ancestors,” she added.

Madam Chnai focuses on many handmade products, but especially copper sculptures. Currently, she has many products in stock, including large bowls for blessings or wedding ceremonies, flower vases, bells and animals which represent the 12 Khmer astrological years.

In addition, her shop also has statues, paintings, handbags and baskets, along with many other modern home decor accessories.

“We have observed that as the market for homes and condominiums grows, there are more and more customers who want to decorate their homes in a modern style. Most of them are sourcing their decorative items from abroad – but we believe we can produce them here. Our team discusses ideas for stylish new items before we bring them to market,” she said.

Madam Chhnai not only sells finished products, but can make them to order. They recently prepared a large copper logo for a company called Daily Care, which is owned by Mun Hourada.

Hourada, who has always been a supporter of Khmer copper products, said that before getting to know Madam Chnai, she used to buy copper items from the Tuol Tom Poung, commonly known as Russian Market, and Central markets. She discovered that the copper would discolour and turn black after just a few months.

The 48-year-old said that the products she bought from Madam Chnai had kept their colours for years, which was why she continued to order from the store.

“I didn’t used to be such a fan of copper, as I thought it was too difficult to find genuine high quality copper. Madam Chnai’s products are pure, and I believe in their quality. This is why I ordered her to make logos for my company and often buy home accessories such as vases,” she said.

“As a Cambodian, I have a duty to support local products and promote Cambodian culture, and it feels good to know that I am helping local artisans to earn incomes and support their families,” she added.

Madam Chnai employs both man and women, with the men doing the majority of the casting work, and women carrying out the detailed carving.

“I don’t have my own factory yet, but my goal is to one day house all of my artisans under one roof,” said Putheary.

Perng Sopheap, a sculptor who works with Putheary, said that she had learned the art of sculpting from her family, and had been doing it for almost 30 years.

As a mother of two, Sopheap said Madam Chnai helped her a lot as Putheary often ordered from her.

“She also has many ideas about creating modern products, which are different from the traditional things we used to make. It is sometimes difficult to adapt to, depending on the order, but we are happy to be working – and it’s always good to try new things,” she said.

Putheary said custom items could take more than a month to complete, but her customers were patient, as they understand the care that must be taken.

She revealed that her main challenges were a lack of capital – as the initial outlay on raw copper was expensive – and a lack of skilled craftspeople. These issues meant progress was sometimes slow.

Today, almost 90 per cent of her clients are Cambodian, and include companies and organisations, as well as individuals.

“At Madam Chnai, our goal is to produce whatever our clients can dream of. We encourage them to speak to us if they want something unique, and we will see what we can do to meet their desires – and their budgets.

“I am pleased to see Cambodians supporting what we are doing. We generally produce smaller items so that they are affordable, which seems to be a winning strategy for us. I want to see the Madam Chnai brand expand, perhaps even overseas,” she added.

Putheary said it’s a privilege to be able to help promote Khmer sculpture and Khmer style and keep it viable as a living art.

She wants to continue to create opportunities for those with this skill, and encourages the families who earn an income from her business to send their children to school.