Cambodian artist recreates traditional masks for Asean summit
Rows of intricately-decorated masks line an exhibition table on Wednesday at the Sokha Hotel in Cambodia, which is hosting leaders from around the region for the 40th and 41st Asean Summit.
Artist Taming Suon is behind the masks, which are recreations of those worn in Lakhon Khol - a centuries-old tradition of Cambodian masked theatre and dance performances.
"My intention for this exhibition is not to sell them, but to show the leaders our Lakhon Khol culture,” said the bespectacled 35-year-old, showing off his multilingualism as he spoke Mandarin with foreign Chinese guests at his exhibit.
Lakhon Khol was inscribed by Unesco, the United Nations’ cultural agency, into its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding in 2018, as practitioners of the traditional performance dwindled among younger generations.
A former Lakhon Khol dancer himself, Taming said the Unesco development spurred him into learning how to create the masks, in the hopes of spreading awareness about Cambodian culture to a larger audience.
"I then had an idea of converting the mask from big to a small souvenir size, but to make it nice and lively looking so people like it and such culture won’t go missing in the future,” he said.
He trained with a master at a local art association, before feeling he was skilled enough to start selling the masks to private buyers in 2020.
The smaller-sized masks are harder to make, due to the complexity of the art on the faces of the characters, Taming said, adding that out of over 100 traditional characters, he only recreates around 25 of them.
At his home studio, Taming demonstrated to Reuters the process behind creating the masks, which involves forming the mask structure using moulds before being embellished with gold-coloured pieces of clay and painted on.
Painting for five days a week, Taming said he has seen healthy demand for the mask creations from both domestic and overseas buyers.
"I want to encourage young artists who have worked hard to make these masks nicely so our younger generation will not forget about our culture,” said Kim Piseth, a buyer who had travelled from outside the capital Phnom Penh.
Cambodia’s centuries-old tradition of masked dance is still struggling to recover, after it was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal 1975-79 rule, when at least 1.7 million people, including artists, dancers and writers, died, mostly from starvation, overwork, disease, execution or torture.
The Asean summit will take place from Thursday (November 10) to Sunday (November 13).