Once upon a time, traditional Khmer masks could only be viewed during specific mask dances, some of which fall under the banner of Reamke, a collective term applied to traditional Khmer cultural performances and histories. Now, however, these ornate pieces of handiwork, reworked to appeal to modern and even foreign tastes, can be found in any number of retail outlets and in turn adorning the homes and offices of many who live here in the Kingdom.
The latest exhibition at The 240 reflects this growing interest in the modernised Khmer mask.
Entitled simply Modern Masks, it is a collection of works by Sam Chanmonyroth, a daughter-in-law of An Sok, a well-known craftsman who’d previously created traditional Khmer masks for decades. Sam Chanmonyroth said that she, like An Sok’s four biological children, have been gifted with the skills to carry on An Sok’s tradition. A legacy held dear as he passed away eight years ago.
And although Sam Chanmonyroth is determined to preserve the art of mask making, she’s not held back in bringing the craft into the 21st century and adapting it to appeal to a wider, international audience.
“This modernised mask is for the foreigner’s market. They like to put it on display in their homes because they’ve seen that we know how to adapt the traditional mask to suit modern society. They like the new creative ideas of Cambodian craftsmen,” says Sam Chanmonyroth.
But her progression from a traditional approach to a more contemporary one wasn’t only to appeal to more customers, it was also to progress with her individual art-making process and reflects how she as an artist relates to the constantly changing world around her.
“First I produced traditional masks, but as I did it for a long time I came to realise that the artist should create a distinguished art object. If we did just one thing one way, sometimes we’d get bored, and due to encouragement from customers, I’ve begun to think of the modernity in the art and how to adapt [my art-making process] to coincide with modernity.”
Sam Chanmonyroth’s husband, An Tola, is the son of An Sok and says that in addition to being a traditional dance teacher, he too produces masks, but isn’t interested in adapting them in any way, preferring to stay true to his father’s original vision.
This modernised mask is for the foreigner’s market ... They like the new creative ideas of Cambodian craftsmen
“I do not want to adapt it,” he says. “I want to conserve it. But when I see her [Sam Chanmonyroth] making these, I am happy that she is creative. I earned a degree in wood sculpture, but because schools today do not teach such a skill anymore, I want to continue after my father because I am afraid of losing such culture.”
While there seems to be a struggle between the authentic preservation of traditional culture and the turning over of a profit within the mask making market, husband and wife Sam Chanmonyroth and An Tola highlight that there’s enough room for the two outlooks to coexist comfortably.
According to Sam Chanmonyroth, the modern masks bring in a lot of purchase orders, while the traditional masks do not. Nonetheless, An Tola’s traditional masks have an unwavering group of admirers and customers, namely other artists and traditional art enthusiasts. He also takes in regular orders from the Royal Palace and other art associations. He says too that depending on the customer, the price of a mask may vary quite a bit.
“Modern masks can sell for anything between US$200 and $1,000. Compared with traditional masks, the price is a little different. If Khmer customers use the masks to dance for our nation, then we sell them at a reasonable price. We will consider the actual situation,” he explains.
Modern Masks is Sam Chanmonyroth’s second exhibition and she says that as long as her audience continues to be interested in her work, she’ll carry on transporting the traditional artform further into the future.
“I just try to adapt it [the masks] without thinking of their meaning and naming [the exhibition to reflect that]. I just want to make them different, and when others see them they are very interested, so I’ll continue producing it.”
Modern Masks is now on show at The 240, located at #83, Street 240, Phnom Penh through to September 11.