Khmer metal engraving artist wins recognition after decades

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A Cambodian bronze and silverware engraver with over half a century's experience is finally gaining recognition for his stunning creations thanks to social media. Photo Supplied

Chea Yuthea is holding a small hammer and chiselling a detailed scene from Ramayana, the Sanskrit epic of ancient India, into a big metal bowl.

Born in 1955, 64-year-old Yuthea has been a metal engraving artist for some 52 years, and still today operates with his son out of his small workshop at his home in Kandal province, where he was born.

From a young age, Yuthea found a strong interest in the art of engraving bronze and silverware.

“I did not have formal training in bronze or being a silversmith at school. When I finished school I was about 12 years old. I decided to study engraving skills with my big uncle and a former bronze artist from the Royal University of Fine Arts,” Yuthea tells The Post.

The only period in which Yuthea stopped was under the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979, but once the war was over he quickly resumed earning his living in bronze and silverware.

Despite people’s amazement at his work’s intricacy, in recovering post-war Cambodia many were not able to pay high prices for his work that usually took several weeks to complete.

“Many years ago, my clients were only my friends and acquaintances through word of mouth. I was only paid a small sum for my work. It was so cheap that my disappointment outweighed my passion for art and I used to think of giving up engraving bronze and silver to start a business,” he says.

In order to sell his work Yuthea would have to go through a middleman, meaning he earned less and his skills went unnoticed.

But ten years ago, Yuthea grew tired of his bronze and silverware going unappreciated and realised he was selling his work short.

“I decided to not sell them through the middleman, who did not place high value on my work. I decided that without a real art lover who valued my work and was willing to pay a reasonable price, I’d rather keep them to myself,” the father of four says.

But when five years ago Facebook became widely used in the Kingdom, Yuthea was suddenly provided with a free platform on which he could showcase his work to a wider audience.

“Now people know me through Facebook. All of my silver plated bronze work sold out, I feel very happy and excited. And even though I’m old and have less energy, the support from people motivates me to work harder."

“When people value my work, I feel overjoyed. Though I’ve been doing this for a living for many years, every time I get an order I still feel excited,” Yuthea says.

Today Yuthea receives help from his second son Ven Ramo, having nurtured the now 33-year-old in the art of metal engraving from a young age.

With social media finally giving him recognition for the skills he has honed for more than five decades, Yuthea says he now receives orders for things he has never tried making before.

“Sometimes I face new challenges when the clients want to do something totally new; for example, a royal sword with this or that design. It’s sort of difficult and requires a lot of thinking and planning."

“A client asked me to do a wine bottle holder. The challenge is to get the right size that fits hundreds of different shapes of bottle, but they leave the freedom of the design to me,” he says.

To cope with the never-ending workload, Yuthea says he has one simple daily practice that keeps him feeling fresh and well-prepared for the job.

“As a mental engraving artist, the most important and first thing that I do is to take a nice bath and feel fresh. Before you begin sweaty work, you have to have a nice clean body and wear proper clothes. The delicate work starts with a neat and tidy self,” he says smiling.

“Then, after you begin holding your tools, you have to leave everything else behind. Your thoughts and attention have to be focused on the object you work on. You can’t work on this silver plated bronze piece and then suddenly think about the housework. As an artist, you cannot let your mind wander.”

His most popular creations include metal standing bowls, Khmer cremation urns, vases, gift boxes and engraved paintings.

Most of his engravings are inspired by the Ramayana, Angkor style flowers and Angkor warriors.

Some depict countryside scenery, including a farmer ploughing rice fields, ox carts, sugar palm climbers, mountains, animals and temples.

Yuthea even does engravings of his client’s portraits on silver plated bronze ware. It takes him between one and two months to finish one order.

“The big metal standing bowl with a diameter of 20 to 30 centimetres took me about two months. I charged about $200 for 1kg. The engraved picture of Angkor Wat, sized at 30 by 50 centimetres, is about $500. For a bigger size engraving of Angkor Wat, the price can jump to $2,000,” he says.

Yuthea starts with metal that is raw and smooth, before drawing the outline and etching bit-by-bit, sometimes going over it three times.

“If you just do the engraving once, the picture is barely noticeable; it’d look like a mere drawing. You have to redo it a few times to make the engravings deep enough so that it stands out well and looks beautiful.”

Despite the time and effort that goes into his work, Yuthea insists that he does it out of love rather than money.

“It’s not about money. Frankly speaking, I want to show my work and continue the tradition of Khmer bronze and silversmiths. Honestly, I cannot earn a lot from this work, but I love it and I’m proud."

“My children told me not to work too hard at my golden age, but I still cannot contain my passion in engraving metal. Sometimes I work until night under electric light.”

He says he has no plan to update to modern equipment, even if it means he can finish his orders faster.

“It’s not about getting it finished and weighing it for money. It’s about creating and furnishing it until you’re content and proud to present it to your clients.

Yuthea’s work can be found on Facebook (@Ramoon Ven) or he can be contacted by phone (092 670 038).