National Art Festival to celebrate traditional Khmer leather carving

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The Cambodia National Art Festival will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this November through the theme of leather art. Heng Chivoan

The Cambodia National Art Festival is set to celebrate its 20th anniversary from November 14-16 through the theme of leather art.

Chhim Sothy, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ Director of Fine Arts and Handicrafts, told The Post: “The first art festival began in 2000 and has featured different art forms each year, including silk, sculpture and handicraft.”

This year, the topic of leather carving is inspired by the Cambodian epic poem Reamker, based on the Sanskrit epic Ramayana.

The highlight is a piece of leather carving measuring 92cm by 130cm, that depicts the story of Preah Ream (an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu) shooting an arrow.

“We want to encourage talented leather artists to take part in the festival and be acknowledged for their crafting skills.

“Experts or emerging leather carving artists are encouraged to join in the leather art competition with prizes up for grabs. Those who are not selected as a top-three finalist will still get a reward,” said Sothy.

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Chhim Sothy, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’ Director of Fine Arts and Handicrafts. Photo supplied

The winner of first prize will receive three million riel ($750), second place will be awarded 2.5 million riel ($625) and third place will receive two million riel ($500). Other contestants will receive 1.5 million riel each ($375) for their laborious task in creating the art pieces.

According to Khmer Art Leather Carving – Little Angels founder Nhek Sirey Rattana, the process of making leather art takes around six months.

“First the artists have to go to the slaughterhouse to buy freshly cut cow skin. Then the skin is tightly stretched so it enables us to roughly shave the fur.

“The skin must be processed within 12 hours after the cow is killed to ensure the skin is very fresh. If it is processed after that timeline, the quality of the skin will be affected,” said the 44-year-old leather art master.

Then, the skin is dried under the sun before it is cut to the desired size and kept in the storage for another three months to get rid of the odour.

“Then we scrape every particle of fat and fur before we start to draw on the skin in preparation to carve it,” said Sirey Rattana.

It is also important to use a type of special paint to preserve the skin so that it can be used for generations.

At Khmer Art Leather Carving – Little Angels, artists use a natural preservation technique by boiling the tree bark of the Kandoal tree (the Slow Match Tree, or Careya arborea). The Kandoal is chosen as it is more eco-friendly, with the tree’s bark growing back again in one or two years.

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The process of making leather art takes around six months. Heng Chivoan

The bark is pounded before it is boiled to extract a sticky mixture, which is then used to paint the animal skin for preservation. After the skin is cured, which requires patience and technique, the intricate leather carving begins.

Each carving can take from a few weeks to a few months to complete, depending on the complexity of the image.

The price of leather art can range from $1 to $1,500.

“As this art form requires delicate skills and takes a long time to create, the price of leather art has been increasing. People are willing to pay for the work of a leather artist.

“Before this, leather art was not valued by many, but now, as more people understand the process of creating it, we are praised for our crafting skills.”

Sothy has observed the public’s growing support for traditional art in recent years.

“Compared to the inaugural festival in 2000, I’ve noticed that Khmer leather art and shadow theatre are attracting more attention from locals, tourists and expats.

“Most of our foreign guests at the festival are from France because the venue is located near to the French school Lycee Francais Rene Descartes,” he said.

Twenty-one leather artists have submitted their artwork to the ministry to date. Most of them are from Phnom Penh and Siem Reap province.

“While the date of the festival is getting close, our judging committee has been inspecting and evaluating the submitted leather art pieces to pick the artwork which will enter the round of finalists,” said Sothy.

“The work from the winning artists will be used by the performing artists during the National Art Festival and exhibited in local and international galleries.”

The National Art Festival 2019 will be held from November 14-16 at the National Library of Cambodia on Street 92, Phnom Penh.

Admission is free. For more information, you can contact 012832228 or 012616545.