Cambodia’s heroes brought to life

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Sculptor Bin Chharann working on a sculpture of Chuon Nath, the creator of the Khmer dictionary. Photo supplied

From a distance, one might mistake Bin Chharann’s sculpture of Chuon Nath – the creator of the Khmer dictionary – as an actual monk meditating peacefully.

The wrinkles in his forehead, the taut tendons protruding from his neck and the finely detailed draping of his orange robe bring the sculpture to life.

Chharann has sculpted many replicas of his iconic 1.3m-tall Chuon Nath statue, which can be seen in schools, pagodas and public places across the country.

He’s also sculpted statues of Krom Ngoy, a famous Khmer poet and a master of the kse diev, a traditional string instrument, as well as King Jayavarman VII of the Khmer Empire.

Chharann admired these Cambodian heroes and by bringing them to life as sculptures, he says he is preserving their legacy while also sustaining his livelihood.

The 39-year-old artist tells The Post: “The statue of Samdech Sangha Raja Jhotanano Chuon Nath is the work I’m most satisfied with. I’ve paid so much attention to every detail as much as possible.”

“I adore him so much that I want to do this while I still have the strength. I paid special attention to this and sculpted it from clay.”

For many, Chuon Nath is the most captivating of all his pieces.

“It took me a month to accomplish this statue, but I only spent around half an hour per day on it. I am mostly busy drawing. I just use my spare time from my painting job to do this.”

Chharann’s main job is as a painter focusing on traditional and religious arts.

Learning from the masters

The sculptor told The Post that he spent 22 years perfecting the art of painting and sculpting.

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Most of Chharann’s artwork depicts figures from Cambodia’s past. Photo supplied

“My father is a gifted painter. I inherited a little from him. But he is just a normal teacher. He didn’t make a living from that,” he says.

Watching his father draw, Chharann fell in love with art and convinced his father to let him follow his passion.

Chharann was sent to learn from one of the famous artists in his hometown of O’Reang-ou district in Tbong Khmum province in 1998.

After six months of absorbing skills from the artist, he moved to Phnom Penh to study painting near Wat Phnom before travelling to Siem Reap province to further hone his skills.

“When I went to study at Wat Phnom, I didn’t study intensely in a physical class. I just learned more techniques from the teacher there as he taught his students. I practised this by myself. After that, I started using my skills to draw on the temple for two years,” he says.

“Around 2004 I went to study at the Morodok Khmer school in Siem Reap province, where they taught not only painting but sculpting too. After completing a year there, I continued to focus more on drawing because I was not able to afford equipment and art supplies for sculpting yet.”

A switch to sculpting

Chharann, a father of five, said he now sculpts from clay, marble, cement, wood and copper.

He says copper makes the best quality sculptures but are the most complicated to create.

Chharann adds that one of the biggest challenges is making sure he’s in an environment where he can stay completely focused on the task at hand. If there’s too much noise, he’s not able to work effectively.

He often turns to meditation to pull himself together before he gets to work on a painting or a sculpture.

“This really needs patience,” he says. “We can’t rush or take shortcuts. We need to sculpt little by little and wait for the cement to dry until it reaches the thickness we want. Only then will I start to sculpt the ears, eyes and nose.”

“I mostly receive orders to draw figures from Buddhist history, kings and Cambodian heroes. There are a few family pictures too,” he says.

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The sculptor, who lives in Prey Veng province with his wife, adds that sculpting one of his Cambodian heroes normally takes 10 full days of work.

The price for each statue is $1,000 with a pedestal, including delivery fare, or $800 without the supporting base.

“Most of my customers are Buddhist monks and followers in the pagodas and head principles from schools,” he says.

Thanks to pictures of his Chuon Nath statue going viral on social media, it’s his most famous work. But Chharann says it doesn’t take away from his other works.

Chharann says customers also ask for sculptures and paintings based on photos they provide to him.

He charges $25 per square metre for wall paintings, while wall carvings cost $70 per square metre. A painting 80 by 120cm costs $150.

Chharann currently has three apprentices – his wife, his cousin and a young worker.

“My last word on the behalf of sculptors is that I hope the government and Cambodians will continue to value the hard work we put in, in the hope of conserving our culture,” he says.

“I encourage people who wish to become artists to think that money is not an object, but their achievement is. So just focus on what you’re doing, the money will come after.

“My purpose for the next two to three years is to sculpt other heroes as well, such as [the late] King Norodom Sihanouk, King Norodom Sihamoni and Beat Richner, the founder of Kantha Bopha Children’s Hospital. I hope this will be something I can leave behind for my family when I am no longer here on this earth with them.”

For more information needed Bin Chharann, the sculptor and painter can be contacted via phone number 012204022 or 0889026655.