Saturday, September 29, 2007

Stories from Artisans d'Angkor

The Star newspaper in Malaysia today carries two stories from artists working with the successful Artisans d'Angkor organisation in Siem Reap. I have posted both stories in the Comments section. And of course take time to visit their website for more details about their story and range of products.


Andy said...

Rebuilding lives, reviving arts
After years of war and genocide, a Cambodian company helps to rebuild the lives of rural villagers and restore Khmer arts to its once glorious state.

Saturday, September 29
- by LEONG SIOK HUI - The Star (Malaysia).

With a chisel and mallet, Cambodian Dy Narong can wield magic.

Chipping off a block of pre-cut stone, Dy can effortlessly sculpt the enigmatic, smiling face of Avalokiteshvara (Buddha of Compassion) or the meditative face of King Jayavarman VII. Had he lived at the height of the Angkorian period (between 802 AD to 1432 AD), Dy would have been one of the master artisans who crafted the glorious temples of Angkor.

But this is 2007 and Dy is one of the many craftsmen behind Artisans d’Angkor (AA), a home-grown Cambodian company that churns out top-quality stone and wood reproductions of Angkorian statues and bas-reliefs, Khmer lacquerware, local crafts and silk products.

Siem Reap-based AA has stores in Phnom Penh, in Siem Reap airport, opposite Angkor Wat, and at a Silk Farm in Puok district, 16km from Siem Reap.

A decade ago, Dy was just one of the many uneducated, unemployed youths in his village, Wat Svay, in Siem Reap Province. Through a friend, Dy found out about Chantiers-Écoles de Formation Professionnelle (CEFP), a training school that teaches craft-making skills to rural youths to enable them to make a living.

How it began

Initiated by the National Cambodian Institutions, the French Foreign Ministry and the European Union in 1992, CEFP selects youths between the age of 18-25 from villages in Siem Reap Province to undergo a six-month, free training in techniques like stone or wood carving, lacquering, gilding and silk-weaving.

Trainees receive living allowances, clothing and tools.

“CEFP’s objective is to create a kind of network so that after training, you’re guaranteed a job,” explains AA’s art-design director Lim Muy Theam. “This is where Artisans d’Angkor, created in 1998, comes in.”

Initially funded by the European Union, AA serves as a marketing and retail arm for the artisans’ work. Since 2003, AA has become autonomous and is self-financed. Today, the private limited company invests in training workshops, provides tools and materials to trainees while CEFP conducts the courses.

AA also helps develop rural areas and curb rural depopulation. To date, there are 10 rural workshops in Siem Reap Province with 40% of AA’s artisans based in these villages and the rest based either in Siem Reap or the Silk Farm in Puok district. Five percent of AA’s craftsmen comprise the physically disabled.

In a country where the per capita income is US$448 (1/10 of Malaysia’s), AA’s 686 artisans earn between US$80 to over US$100 per month per person, depending on skills and experience. On top of the fixed salary, they earn extras from sales of each product. For example, a woodcarver earns US$15 for one Jayavarman VII bust that retails at US$79.

In a month, he could make five “heads” and take home an income of US$175, which is equivalent to what a Cambodian rural farmer can earn in a year.To prevent any exploitation, the artisans have employment contracts and the company’s social fund provides medical care and social welfare to employees.

“We don't have a boss,” explains Lim. “Our artisans formed an association called Artisanat Khmer and owns 20% stake in the company and take part in decision-making.”

The Cambodian government owns 30% share in AA, the board of directors cum management team holds a 10% while private shareholders make up 40% of AA’s ownership.

“The government audits us, checks on how much money is put back into investments, training and to the artisans,” adds Lim.

The artisan’s life

For Dy, who joined AA in 1996, the company did more than just put bread on his table.

“At first, I was just motivated to learn a trade that would provide me with a regular income,” admits Dy, 36, married with two children. “Then I met Cambodian natives (like Lim) who left the country during the war and returned to be part of CEFP and Artisans d’Angkor.”

Dy was perplexed as to why these Cambodians who live a cushy life abroad would return to rebuild the country from scratch.

“After talking with them, I realised how rich our national heritage was and the importance of preserving it,” says Dy who takes immense pride in his work. “I understand that I play an important role in passing on and preserving our traditional skills.”

With 11 years of experience, Dy now works in the design department where he creates prototypes for potential products.

“I’m also involved in research work to design new products that convey our traditions,” says Dy who wishes to be part of AA for as long as he can. “We conduct studies to find the patterns, motifs, colours or materials we can use for our products.”

Dy's job took him abroad for the first time when AA opened their shop in Hong Kong. It was journey of many firsts for him – to step out of his motherland, and to leave his family and culture for a while.

“At home, I don't have satellite cable TV so I didn't know how other countries look like,” says Dy. “Hong Kong is so different and such an amazing and prosperous place! I sadly realised how far Cambodia has to go?”

The long haul

But as for putting Khmer arts on the world map, AA is on the right track.

AA’s wares are displayed at Gallery Jayavarman VII in Paris. The company boasts a shop in Hong Kong International Airport (Terminal 2) and will launch another store in Singapore’s Changi Airport (Terminal 3) this November. At home, AA is opening a shop in the new Angkor National Museum.

Well-heeled foreigners who demand first-rate craftsmanship and unique pieces are among AA’s valuable clients.

In 2007 alone, 107 new artisans are undergoing training at CEFP. AA’s commercial department studies the market and predicts the increase (or decrease) in product demands at least two years in advance.

Not one to sit on their laurels, AA is charting its next course.

“To survive in this industry, we need to move beyond Cambodia’s tourist market,” admits Lim. For its first decade, AA responded to the tourist market by designing its collection based on the Angkor heritage theme, Lim explains.

“Our earlier objectives were to find an easier way to train apprentices and to revive traditional craft techniques that were lost because of the war,” says Lim. “And reproducing existing artworks was the best way to give these apprentices a better understanding of their own culture.”

But to stay ahead of the game, AA had to stay creative.

Starting 2003, the company started tweaking its silk collection by creating fashionable items that target younger customers.

“We used to get comments that our silk collection is boring (with subdued colours like black, brown),” chuckles Lim. “So this season, I try to push brighter and fun colours inspired by popular traditions from the countryside.”

The tanned villagers love to don something cheery and colourful during festivals, Lim adds. This season’s silk products showcase cosmetic pouches, coin purses and scarves in lime green, orange and blood-red hues.

“As for the artisans, we have to think about how to give them a second step in training, not only to do reproductions but to master technically perfect skills,” says Lim.

“We understand that design is the key factor to identity and differentiation,” he adds. “But we have to be aware and grasp the fundamentals of Khmer culture and heritage and then transform the spirit of traditional crafts into new designs.”

Over the years, AA has been striving to change the lowly perception of Cambodian products.

“The key to our success is to preserve AA’s originality, its product quality and savoir-faire, and to forecast the trend of arts and crafts in the region,” sums up Lim.

As for Dy, his aspiration is simple.

“I hope to gain a deeper understanding of Khmer arts and make my knowledge accessible to the younger generation so that I can be sure of the preservation of Khmer’s cultural heritage,” he says.

If artisans like Dy are a measure of Artisan d’Angkor’s success, the company has certainly made it.

For more info on Artisans d’Angkor, click on

Andy said...

An artist’s calling
A passion for art and history led Lim Muy Thean to becoming a respected artisan in Cambodia.

Saturday, September 29 - by LEONG SIOK HUI, The Star (Malaysia)

If you studied art at one of the most prestigious fine arts schools in the world – the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts (National School of Fine Arts) in Paris – and your fellow alumni included artists like Claude Monet and Edgar Degas and fashion designers, Valentino and Hubert de Givenchy, what would you do?

You could become a celebrity painter and command a six-figure price tag for each piece of your artwork.

Or, you could be like Lim Muy Theam.

Lim set aside his dreams and journeyed to a place he once fled from 15 years ago to take part in the rebuilding of a country ravaged by three decades of war.

Lim is one of the few overseas-educated Cambodians who are helping to revive the Khmer craft industry and manage the successful Artisans d’Angkor (AA).

As the art-design director, Lim’s job is to create new products and introduce new collections for AA.

He also designs the chic AA stores with simple lines to showcase the elaborate craftwork.

“We are not simply just producing artefacts of Angkor temples,” says the genial Lim during an interview in his Siem Reap office.

“My job is to come up with the right colour, proportions, shapes and designs that people can appreciate and want to put in their homes.”

But how did Lim, who speaks fluent French, English and Khmer, end up with AA?

The journey home

Born in Takeo Province, south of Cambodia, Lim was nine when the Khmer Rouge regime fell and Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1978. Amidst the widespread famine and the trauma caused by the genocide, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled the country.

Lim’s family was among the refugees who arrived in France in 1980. Lim was separated from his family and adopted by a French family.

“I was exposed to arts and culture since young,” says Lim, who visited his Cambodian family during summer holidays when he was growing up. Traditionally, Cambodian parents raise their children to pursue practical careers like in business or computers.

“But my French family saw my artistic talents and passion for art and history. They pushed me to follow my dream,” says Lim.

At that time, the Cambodian community in France only talked about politics, the rebuilding of Cambodia after the war, and not arts or culture, Lim adds.

After high school, Lim enrolled in the École Bulle, Paris (one of the largest trade schools in France) to study interior design and graphics. In 1992, he gained admission into the tough and prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

In 1994, he made the life-changing decicison to return to Cambodia.

“With my arts knowledge, I wanted to see how I can share and give what I had learned in France to my people,” says the idealistic artist. Growing up in France, Lim used to hear about the sublime Angkorian Empire and the glory of Khmer arts. But when he finally returned to Cambodia, he was shocked.

“There was no presence of any art or style, people didn’t even speak very well. They were just trying to feed themselves,” says Lim, who initally worked as a painter and did a few exhibitions in an art gallery.

For three years, he devoted himself to learning about his country. He trawled through temples and pagodas around the country, visited people’s homes, and studied whatever artwork and artefacts he could lay his hands on. The Khmer Rouge regime had tried to wipe out any reminder of Cambodia’s past – its artisans, cultural artefacts, statues and books.

“I'm interested in how Cambodians live their everyday lives and use things like spoons and pots, the house they live in – the equilibrium of the designs,” says Lim, 39. “And I try to find the relationship between the aesthetics of the Angkor temples and present-day Cambodians' lives.

Inevitably, Chantiers-Écoles (whose programme was still in its infancy) roped in the designer to help them set up a modular training and look into the technical and artistic aspects of the programme.

Daunting tasks

At Chantiers-Écoles, one of Lim’s roles was to reintroduce the traditional method to the trainees. But there were no precedents and virtually all the information on arts and crafts had to be researched, compiled or rediscovered.

Lim was lucky to track down some of the old master craftsmen who were still alive and based in Phnom Penh. Most of these artisans are from Battambang, a once dynamic city that sits between the Thai/Cambodian bordertown of Poipet and Phnom Penh.

At the beginning of the 20th century under French rule, Battambang experienced a rebirth of craft traditions with French and Siamese stylistics influences. The city produced skilled craftsmen, artists and musicians who later moved to Phnom Penh.

Over three years, Lim studied how the masters worked and took notes and pictures. He then taught the traditional process to youths who have zero background or knowledge in arts and crafts.

“These youths have never been to school and they had no concept of time and discipline,” explains Lim. “We had to figure out what language and method to use to make them understand without using technical jargons. We could only use visual tools to teach and motivate them.”

It was a learn-as-you-go process for both the teachers and trainees.

He spurs his trainees to look at links to their cultural past. Ancient temples dot the country and even in the boondocks, there is a presence of style and aesthetics. Cambodians also grew up with folktales told by their ancestors.

“We’re not a fine arts school, we give basic skills to the artisans so they can work as a team within our network. In this modern economy, our artisans can’t work on his own out there because he doesn’t hail from a traditional craftsman’s family.

“But people will give value to quality, aesthetic beauty and detail,” says Lim.

“Even when we do reproductions, we respect the material, the process of creating the craft and try to understand what our ancestors have done, the years they spent to carve a masterpiece and try to feel their spirits in our work.

“One of the most challenging things for me is, though I can come up with excellent designs that meet international standards, we still have to figure out how to transmit that message to our artisans about something so refined and with the right colour or shapes. It takes time.”

What delights Lim is that over time, the artisans have become sensitive to aesthetics.

“Even on weekends after work, when they're eating or lazing in their hammocks, they chat about proportions, what is good, what colour mixes well with another. They love to work on special orders, as they are freer to express their individual creativity.”

A pat in the back

After 10 years with AA, Lim can look back and be proud of one thing: He started working with 50 artisans and now AA has more than 600 artisans.

He walks alongside the artisans as they journey through life, from their apprenticeship to securing a stable job and starting a family.

“Now they have their own houses, and in the weekends, they can ride their motorbikes with their families to Angkor Wat, have a drink in front of the temple and spend a leisurely time,” says Lim, smiling.

“To most people, this may sound simple, but it is a big success to have this stable and ‘normal’ life in Cambodia.”

Today, one in three Cambodians still live on less than 2000 riels (RM1.70) a day (UNDP Cambodia). And most villagers from rural Cambodia have never stepped foot in Siem Reap.

But AA has created over 1000 jobs for its artisans and staff involved in marketing, retail, design and logistics.

“We have affected maybe a total of 4,000 to 5,000 Cambodians' lives, plus the children who are the future of Cambodia,” says Lim.

“I think I've been part of this good work.”