The humble sedge floor mat will become a work of art tonight at an exhibition in Phnom Penh.
Produced from the fibrous Cyperus iria sedge, which resembles grass and is cultivated in paddy fields, the mats have long been used in Cambodia for a variety of purposes.
However, Camilla Plüss, who is organising the Kantel Kak exhibition that will feature 25 to 30 mats at Cambodian Living Arts (CLA), said that the mats tend not to be appreciated despite their widespread use.
“Many people see them, but they don’t see them,” said Plüss. “But then we make people realise them, and people start thinking about them.”
“We use the mat to sleep on, to meditate at the pagoda, and also as rugs,” said Lun Yeng, a consultant for the Cambodia Sedge Mats Business Association (CSMA) trade organisation, which is supporting the exhibition.
“In the countryside, we use the sedge mat to honour people who visit, to let them sit on.”
Sedge mats come in both traditional and contemporary varieties, with the latter geared toward Western tastes.
“The traditional ones have simple patterns but are really colorful as well, with flowers and stripes, and a lot of yellow and red and green,” said Plüss.
“They need to be more solid than elegant, while the contemporary ones need to be more elegant than solid.”
CLA communications manager Marion Gommard said that many people, particularly foreigners, do not know that the mats are all made at home in Cambodia.
“We’re trying to let people know that this tradition is existing, people are doing it today in Cambodia,” said Gommard. “This is a very usual object, but where does it come from? No one knows.”
The sector is entirely a cottage industry, with most production based in Kandal province.
“During the weaving, you need two people,” said Yeng, who added that most weavers are women who charge about $1 to weave one mat. The mats, which are most popular in urban areas, sell from $8 to $15, depending on size.
Since the typical length of the sedge straw is 1.6 metres, most mats do not go above 1.6 by two metres in size.
“You can make two metres, but you have to connect the pieces together,” said Yeng, who added that a mat will typically contain between 1.5 and two kilograms of sedge.
Yeng, who will present about 25 mats at Tuesday’s exhibition on behalf of the CSMA, said that he hopes that the exhibition will raise awareness of sedge mats in order to combat a decrease in domestic demand.
“A lot of the weavers and farmers depend on this business, but the domestic market is getting lower and lower due to the imports of synthetic mats from overseas,” he said, adding that the imports are cheaper and lighter.
With domestic demand shrinking as synthetic mats grow in popularity, CSMA is looking outward to sell the mats.
“Raw sedge is imported to Vietnam, while some of the finished products are exported to Thailand, Europe, Japan and Korea,” said Yeng.
However, he added that the demand for sedge mats may increase in the future if the sector catches up with the industrial revolution.
“In the future, when weavers get modern technology, they will try to use machinery and get more competitive costs,” he said.
Kantel Kak will open at 6pm on Tuesday, January 15 at #128-G9, Sothearos Boulevard.
To contact the reporter on this story: Bennett Murray at [email protected]