After generations, the family behind lacquer masks fear possible demise

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Interest in this traditional masked drama art form, officially known as Lakhon Khol Wat Svay Andet, has gradually increased among local and international audiences since it was enlisted on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding at a ceremony in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis last November. Photo supplied

Since Lakhon Khol Wat Svay Andet was enlisted on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding at a ceremony in the Mauritian capital of Port Louis last November, interest in this traditional masked drama art form has gradually increased among local and international audiences.

Consequently, the family who have for two generations produced the intricate masks and costumes used in Lakhon Khol have also come into the limelight.

A graduate in the field of sculpture, in 1990 Kum Sokunthea chose to follow in the footsteps of her father-in-law, late lacquer master An Sok.

He was born in Takeo province in 1944 and moved to Phnom Penh in 1953, where he would go on to learn how to make lacquer masks at a fine arts school.

Sok would go on to make a living producing masks and traditional embroidered costumes until the onset of the Khmer Rouge regime. After surviving the civil war, Sok resumed his work.

Recalling her family history, Sok‘s daughter-in-law Sokunthea tells The Post: “This lacquer art business has a long history in my family. We have produced the lacquer masks for a living since my father-in-law’s generation, master An Sok. He is a former art professor specialising in sculpture and lacquer masks.

“He was also skilful in sewing and embroidering traditional dance costumes for Lakhon Koal and Lakhon Bassac. He was very good at making Khmer uniforms and government official badges too.”

Before An Sok passed away at the age of 62 in 2006, he ensured his legacy would live on as he carefully transferred his expertise in lacquer mask making to his children, including Sokunthea.

Sokunthea explains that the mask is created by layering paper on a cement mould. The ornamental details are cast out of lacquer resin collected from the Krell tree, which is abundant in Kampong Thom province. Finally, the mask surface is carefully painted and a carved gold leaf is applied.

Only a small amount of the resin can be harvested at a time and it takes up to a month for Krell tree to replenish its supplies.

A complicated process that requires patience and careful technique, each mask takes on average between three to five weeks to produce.

When Sok was still alive, the family would work as a team to draw, paint, glue and apply gold leaves to the masks together. The children and grandchildren were there to help Sok, who would stand by and guide them.

After Sok passed away, his eldest son An Sitha – who also teaches fine art – continued on his father’s legacy together with his siblings, continuing to make the same yak (giant), monkey and crown masks they have done for decades.

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Because their work has contributed to promoting Khmer culture, the family receive a lot of support from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, as well as from the director of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, Princess Norodom Buppha Devi (third left). Photo supplied

“We continue this family tradition of making masks and embroidery from our father since he passed away. Almost all of the final products of lacquer masks and traditional intricate costumes come from the labour of my family,” says Sokunthea, who is now in her 50s.

Because their work has contributed to promoting Khmer culture and tradition, the family receive a lot of support from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, as well as from the director of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, Princess Norodom Buppha Devi.

Sokunthea, who also works as government official, said it is an honour that her lacquer masks and embroidered costumes are appreciated by the princess and worn by Royal Ballet performers.

While the creations also gain praise from people living in France and the US, Sokunthea notes that she prefers to practice modesty about it all.

“We don’t want any publicity. We want to stay humble. We don’t want to promote our business to the mass public. For me, I personally don’t want to put our family business in the spotlight because I’m afraid that people would say we are commercialising a traditional art form in order to get fame,” she says.

“Most people get to know our Khmer lacquer work from word of mouth and social media. Some clients come to our workshop to buy the lacquer masks and traditional embroidered costumes, posting pictures on Facebook. It’s unavoidable that more and more people will get to know our work.”

Now in her 50s, Sokunthea is most concerned with passing on the tradition to the next generation, but her children show little interest in the traditional art form. The reason for this disinterest, according to Sokunthea, is that the task requires great patience and is time consuming, but the products are not sold for high a price.

Lacquer masks and embroidered costumes can fetch between $200 to several thousands of dollars depending on the size, material, and labour time – some pieces require a few months to complete.

“This family tradition might end with my generation as the children are turning their interest to architecture and engineering. I will not force them; it depends on what they like and are good at. I learned and made a living from lacquer masks and traditional embroidery only because I wanted to,” she says.

Kum Sokunthea’s traditional lacquer mask and embroidered costumes can be found on Street 178 in Daun Penh district’s Chey Chumneas Commune, Phnom Penh.