Khmer pottery is a ceramic art revered for its masterful techniques, dating back to the Khmer Empire, an ancient civilization that flourished from the ninth to fifteenth centuries and gave birth to the Angkor Wat temple and other monumental works. A project is now under way that aims to revive Khmer pottery while fostering the economic independence of potters, thereby helping to restore the national pride of Cambodians.
Healing the Emotional Scars of the Civil War
The brutal rule of the Pol Pot regime and decades of civil war have made Cambodia one of the poorest countries in the world. But the country is heir to the highly developed culture of the Khmer Empire, famous for building Angkor Wat, a stunning architectural achievement that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The empire is also known for the beautiful works of Khmer pottery, of which only a few survive. This pottery features patterns similar to those found at other historical ruins, as well as motifs based on elephants and other animals. Unfortunately, the advanced techniques employed to create Khmer pottery were completely lost over the course of the empire’s decline and the subsequent period of foreign occupation and prolonged internal strife.
A project to rediscover this lost art is now under way in the town of Kampong Chhnang on the southern shore of Cambodia’s largest lake, Tonle Sap, located in the center of the country. The Cambodia Traditional Pottery Project, which was launched in October 2009 with funding from The Nippon Foundation, makes use of Japanese pottery techniques from Mashiko, a town in Tochigi Prefecture long-known for its pottery tradition. The project aims to help restore the national pride of Cambodians, who still bear deep emotional scars from the period of internal strife, while also revitalizing the Cambodian village where the pottery is produced and raising the standard of living for people in rural areas.
The project director, Yukie Yamazaki, explains more about why the decision was made to revive the art of pottery in Cambodia:
“Shards of Khmer pottery have been unearthed in the area around Angkor Wat, but whole pieces suitable for exhibiting in museums are rare, and documents on the production process have been lost. It would have been impossible to fully revive Khmer pottery, which is why we call it “illusive”. For the project, specialists in Mashiko pottery were invited to Cambodia from Japan in a bid to give form to a new sort of Khmer pottery. We have dubbed this pottery “Kampong Chhnang” to differentiate it from its historical antecedent. Our hope is that this style of pottery will become a signature Cambodian ware.”
Yamazaki first went to Cambodia in 1994 as a member of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers. At the time the country still bore the scars of its civil war, but the Cambodians she met were friendly and kindhearted. Yamazaki’s stay was cut short by an illness, but after her recovery she longed to return to Cambodia. Eventually, she enrolled in the Royal University of Phnom Penh in the Cambodian capital to learn Khmer. Following graduation, she worked for more than a decade as an interpreter in Cambodia, serving as a bridge between Japan and Cambodia.
“When I arrived in Cambodia, the political situation was unstable since the country had been devastated by the Pol Pot regime’s policies of genocide and the fierce internal strife. The students I met at university were without hope and felt uncertain about the future. When I told them how much I admired Khmer culture, they answered despondently that it was hard to believe that great civilization was developed by Cambodians. I realized that the way to restore confidence and enable Cambodia to become self-sufficient, rather than dependent on foreign aid, was to create a new culture that young people could take pride in—one that would be a new source of love for their country.”
Creating a Strategy for Economic Independence
In 2005, Yamazaki’s work as an interpreter brought her into contact with a ceramics cooperation project in Kampong Chhnang. The pottery produced in the town was unglazed and came in a variety of sizes, and it was used by local residents for serving or cooking meals and storing food. However, the pieces were not thrown on a wheel but hand-shaped, and the thickness of the pieces varied, making them easily breakable. Despite the extensive time and labor required to produce the pottery pieces, they were sold at low prices. The idea behind the project was to enhance the earnings of the potters by producing durable glazed pottery with high added value.
Yamazaki came to realize that the aim of the project—to make Cambodians the main actors in reviving Khmer culture, rather than simply transferring new technologies to the people—was the very idea she had had as a student. This realization fueled her interest in the project. Unfortunately, the ceramics cooperation project could only fund the construction of a small kiln, and the period of cooperation ended shortly after the first pieces were fired.
There are many projects in Cambodia funded with foreign capital, and many end before the technology has been transferred, leaving nothing to show for that investment of time and money. Yamazaki decided to search for additional funding to keep the project going in the hope that the local pottery could be transformed into unique products with the potential to be the basis of a lucrative business.
“It was around this time that I heard about the variety of grant programs in Asia backed by The Nippon Foundation. Officials at the foundation showed an interest in my idea of developing a business model that would make it possible for Cambodians to achieve economic independence by producing and selling their own goods with added value, and we succeeded in getting the funding.”
Once cooperation for the project had been obtained for an extended term, a pottery workshop and ascending kiln were built on the edge of the village.
“The Cambodians involved in the original project had already left, so we put out an advertisement,” Yamazaki recalls. “About 30 people answered it. The problem was that many Cambodians assume that in the case of a foreign-funded project, they would be paid by the day. When I explained that they had to work for free until the pottery they made was sold, all but seven people left. However, the seven who remained were committed to making the project work, and we became a tight-knit group.”
New Creative Impulses of the Potters
In Kampong Chhnang, pottery is regarded as women’s work, and all seven of the original potters were women. One of the potters was forced to leave the project and get a job in the city because of family circumstances. The remaining six spend their days at the workshop, throwing pottery on the wheel, drying the pieces, firing up the kiln, decorating the pieces using glazes, and firing the pieces. Many of the jobs, including collecting the wood for firing the kiln and transporting the clay, require physical strength and are done by the women’s husbands and sons.
Ms. Pau, one of the main members of the six-person team, smiles as she reflects on the progress made: “Before we only produced unglazed pottery, and the pieces all looked pretty much the same. Here at the workshop, though, the pieces have different designs, and we’re able to create a variety of colors with the glazes. When I make a pot, I spend a lot of time thinking about what touches I can add. My desire to produce something new and better grows stronger by the day.”
The other members of the team are enthusiastic about their work and have a hopeful view of the future, offering such comments as:
“I want to make the sort of pottery that people want.”
“I’d like to try incorporating designs of Angkor Wat into my pots.”
“It isn’t easy to use the glazes, so when the color of a pot comes out the way I imagined it, I’m very happy.”
“If my pottery begins to sell, I’m going to send my children to a higher level of schooling.”
Three years have passed since the project started up again. Among the orders the workshop has received are for ashtrays for upscale hotels in Phnom Penh and for dishes for a famous ramen restaurant run by Japanese in Cambodia. Yamazaki has extended the lineup of smaller pieces of pottery offered at NyoNyum Shop, her souvenir store in the capital. A shop in Kampong Chhnang run by the pottery project team was opened at the end of 2013 in response to the growing number of foreigners visiting the workshop on their way to and from Angkor Wat and Phnom Penh.
Yamazaki says the project participants are coming closer to reaching their goal of operating an independent business once the project support period is over. “Many of the people who come to our shop ask us whether the pottery is really made in Cambodia,” Yamazaki says, “because most of the goods sold in Cambodia are made in Thailand and Vietnam. I’d like to see Kampong Chhnang become a specialty product of Cambodia soon. There’s much we still have to do, like expanding the sales channels and training new business staff, but we’re all very motivated. I feel honored to be in a position to assist in the re-creation of this ‘lost’ art and contribute to the restoration of Cambodian national pride.”
Photographs by Hisayoshi Osawa