The modern Lakhon Khol mini-masks made by the Robam Khmer art collective are very different from the larger and more intricate masks worn by dancers during the traditional mask theatre performances – often taking place under colourful cloth canopies raised over the grounds at the site of one of the nation’s many Buddhist temples.

It could be argued, however, that both kinds of masks serve the same purpose as authentic, heartfelt and sincere expressions of their Cambodian maker’s traditional culture.

Both varieties of Lakhon Khol masks feature the same cast of characters drawn from Hindu lore, with Hanuman, Preah Ream, Preah Leak, Neang Seda, Krong Ream among them.

However, Robam Khmer have updated the concept of Lakhon Khol masks by transforming them into cute mini-versions of the fearsome originals, which they conveniently offer for sale displayed inside their own small glass domes illuminated by fairy lights.

Their 18 member team – consisting of professional and self-taught artists – launched their line of mini-masks last year as decorative objects and they’ve managed to catch the attention and spark the imagination of the Cambodian public. Sales of them have been increasing steadily since their debut, with no signs of slowing down.

According to Sou Vannak, one of the founders of Robam Khmer, the group “was formed in 2015 with 18 members as an offshoot of the National Action Culture Association (NACA).”

Robam Khmer has won awards for their work on traditional costumes. Photo supplied

“We have been recognised by the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the Phnom Penh municipal administration. All of our members have undergone training through NACA in the past,” he said, referencing the Khmer arts and culture NGO who cooperate closely with the government in their various endeavours.

NACA’s mission as an organisation is to protect, conserve and develop every Khmer art form including classical and modern music, traditional dances, traditional costumes and more and that includes training in the traditional arts.

According to Vannak, who is a traditional dancer himself though not actively performing at present, the decorative art objects inspired by the Lakhon Khol characters portrayed by the masked dancers contribute to conserving Cambodian culture, promoting national identity, and making Khmer artwork omnipresent in Cambodian society whether it is for religious or just decorative purposes.

The 32-year-old founder said his objective in making the mini-masks was tripartite in nature.

“We have three main goals. Firstly, we are focusing on preserving and widely propagating the Lakhon Khol art form and tradition.

“The original Lakhon Khol masks are very big and maybe a little scary. So we miniaturised them and made them lovable to take away that element of fear that people might have, especially for young kids when they are just beginning to learn about their culture.”

“Secondly, these mini-masks make nice gifts because they aren’t just cute – they mean something. People who are proud of their Cambodian identity will enjoy having them and also giving them to friends from other nations as a way to share their culture with them.

“And finally, they can be used as religious items or just as decorative objects to place in the office or in your house. In other words – they also just look cool,” Vannak says.

Back in November of 2018, Lakhon Khol Wat Svay Andet – a version of the traditional dance form with a long lineage that is only found in one community in Cambodia located around the Wat Svay Andet pagoda about 10km east of Phnom Penh along the Mekong River – was placed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.

Ta Ey Sey, a hermit or holy old man character from Reamker. Photo supplied

The international attention focused on Lakhon Khol by UNESCO’s recognition of the art form had the result within Cambodia of increasing the number of young and patriotic Khmer firmly intent on doing their part to preserve their Kingdom’s ancient culture.

Vannak says that his group had in fact made Lakhon Khol masks previously about three years back, but the public’s fascination with them only began to increase towards the end of 2019.

He says that as a business venture the mini-mask project is doing quite well with dozens of masks already ordered with cash deposits paid – and dozens more potential orders awaiting payment before they can fill them.

Vannak explains that the mini-masks are made by just three of the members of the Robam Khmer group. None of the three have ever been to any sort of proper school in order to learn their artistic skills. They are just natural-born talents who have also spent time practicing to improve while watching more experienced artists at work.

However, according to Vannak even these three talented artists hesitate to attempt to make one of the full size masks of the sort that the dancers on stage use because it is more complicated and a person must dedicate themselves to serious training in order to do it correctly.

Vannak says that his mini-mask artists are content to leave that task to the true mask-making professionals for now.

Prices for Lakhon Khol masks depend on the size of the mask and also how difficult the character is to sculpt.

The mini-masks that Vannak specialises in are less costly than what the dancers use. The heroic brothers Preah Ream and Preah Leak are only about $60.

But for Krong Ream – the ten-headed giant who features along with the brothers in the Cambodian epic poem Reamker that Lakhon Khol dancers perform scenes from – the price is $80.

“The mini-mask is only the size of an iPhone. They come under a glass dome illuminated by a small light inside so you will be able to display it anywhere. It’s a simple idea but people love them because they look really great and they symbolise Cambodia’s unique cultural heritage.

“Due to our busy schedule, orders can take a month or two to fill right now but we don’t want to rush them and lower the quality,” Vannak says.

In addition to the mini-masks, Robam Khmer has a number of other cultural items they craft including traditional costumes and other kinds of traditional art. Everything they offer is handmade by artisans from their group.

“We don’t have a professional designer to design fancy clothes. We use the traditional patterns but we do try adding in some nice luxurious touches to make things nice and new. We use gold crowns to make things shine. Even with our traditional dances, we update those in small ways as well to keep things fresh.

“We actually designed the traditional suit that is now being used to represent the nation in fashion photo shoots. We won the top prize in a contest that was held to decide whose clothing was going to be used up on stage at the Miss World 2021 pageant,” Vannak proudly explains.

“Some customers are asking us to add a Cambodian flag to our products. In the future we’d like to be able to stamp “Made in Cambodia” on them, too.

“Most people have praised us for the hard work we put into what we do. People seem to understand that this sort of thing takes a lot of determination and that we wouldn’t bother if our hearts weren’t in it.

“And they appreciate that we are taking things from Cambodia’s past and making them new again by adding a modern twist to them,” Vannak says.

Vannak says that he’d like to increase his group’s marketing reach for their products and that will be a focus on this year.

He also added that he hopes that others are as happy for Robam Khmer’s modest successes of late as he is when he sees other Cambodian’s projects take off, especially if they manage to do it using their own ideas and originality.

“I want to see Cambodian people cooperate with one another and stop looking down on everyone or trying to compare one artist to another. Before people open their mouths to criticise others they should know what they are talking about first. Or if they don’t know, they should at least be willing to listen and learn

“It seems like a lot of people always have time to say something negative when it comes to other people’s ideas and creative efforts but they never take the time to stop and ask anybody why they are doing what they do when they don’t even know what their reasons are.

“I hope people will start to change and value and support each other’s work and engage in dialogue more so we can all succeed together as Cambodians,” Vannak says.

For more information Robam Khmer can be contacted via their Facebook page: @MyCountryMyCulture