Interview with the founder of Khmer Ceramics and Fine Arts Centre

When and why did you come to Cambodia?

I first came to Cambodia in 1999, initially as a holiday. I quickly fell in love with the country, the always smiling people, the culture, the temples of Angkor and particularly the ancient art they represented.

I wanted to discover more about Cambodian traditional arts and crafts but at that time, besides the Angkor complex itself, there was little accessible to the average visitor. I was particularly interested in ceramics, something I had become passionate about in my native Belgium, thanks in large part to my uncle who was a potter. But, with the exception of some very basic types of local pottery, there were few examples of traditional Khmer ceramic arts to be found. Sadly, so much of Cambodia’s cultural heritage and artistic knowledge had been lost during the dark days of the Khmer Rouge. The country was rebuilding itself after years of war and suffering and I wanted to contribute to its recovery, to help the local people and help restore their remarkable heritage.

How did the Khmer Ceramics project begin?

Two years after my first visit, I returned to Cambodia and with a couple of enthusiastic Khmer potters I established a small ceramics centre in Siem Reap, close to the temples of Angkor. In the following years, I focused on implementing traditional handmade Khmer ceramics techniques and after researching ancient kiln-building techniques I constructed a single wood-fired kiln and used natural wood ash glazes. I worked with local potters and sought to assist the local community, particularly through training programmes and the diffusion of artistic knowledge.

In 2006 I founded the National Centre for Khmer Ceramic Revival (NCKCR), a non-profit, non-governmental organisation with the aim of revitalising the Cambodian ceramics industry. I invited ceramic artists and experts to Siem Reap for a series of conferences. On the one hand, I wanted to help spread the word about Cambodian arts internationally and, on the other, I wanted local potters to be able to benefit from the knowledge of outside experts in the ceramics field, so as to help create a sustainable local industry.

Why did you choose Siem Reap-Angkor as the location for the project?

The temples of Angkor were the heart of the Khmer Empire and today they remain the cultural, spiritual and artistic heart of the country, so the nearby town of Siem Reap seemed like the natural choice to launch a project focused on cultural and artistic revitalisation.

Coincidentally, the oldest pottery wheel ever discovered in Cambodia was found in a village close to Angkor, one of many indications that in the past there had been a thriving ceramics industry in the area. In recent years, however, much of Cambodian pottery production had been centred on the city of Kampong Chhnang, 200 kilometres to the southeast, although much of what is produced there consists of functional low-fired items, things like basic cooking pots and barbecues, not traditional Khmer ceramics.

In addition, Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992, attracts millions of visitors from around the world each year so Siem Reap is well positioned to act as a hub from which to spread knowledge about Cambodian arts around the world. But, besides tourism, there have typically been few other opportunities for employment for locals in Siem Reap, which lacks the industry of cities such as Phnom Penh. By launching the Khmer Ceramics project here, we were able to provide new job opportunities and training to local people, as well as have a local outlet for our ceramic products via the tourism sector in order to fund the continuity of the project.

As a social enterprise, what are your primary goals?

On the one hand, we work with the local community, and seek to create educational and training opportunities, especially for disadvantaged groups, such as single mothers, people with little or no schooling, low-income groups and people with disabilities. On the other hand, we want to ensure that Cambodia’s artistic heritage is preserved and maintained, and that knowledge is spread and passed down from generation to generation.

Through vocational training our older, experienced potters help educate younger artisans in ceramic arts and ceramic production techniques. Perhaps most significantly, we provide employment and career opportunities to groups of Cambodian society who may have few other ways to obtain a stable income and improve their and their families’ quality of life.

In the years since it was launched, how has the project evolved?

From one wood-fired kiln and 5 employees when we began, we have since moved to a more central location, opened two additional shops and greatly expanded out production.

We now employ around 60 people directly, 75% of them women. We have also started using gas-fired kilns and innovating in our production techniques, helping to raise the quality of our products while maintaining traditional processes and styles.

We have also expanded our social enterprise model into other areas, and added other artisanal products, hence the rebranding of the name to Khmer Ceramics and Fine Arts Centre a few years ago. Today we provide employment indirectly to another 40 or so artisans, including villagers near Siem Reap who weave baskets and make palm leaf boxes for us, as well as handmade wood and stone carvings and natural jewellery, all produced by local artisans.

Many artistic traditions have been lost in Cambodia. In your view, how important is it to restore and preserve these for future generations?

Cambodia has a unique history and its people suffered a great deal during the 20th century, but they also have much to be proud of, not least their cultural and artistic heritage. The decimation of knowledge under the Khmer Rouge regime combined with the effects of modern globalisation have undoubtedly put elements of Cambodia’s rich heritage at risk of being lost forever. In my view, prevention is better than cure, so it is better to preserve and build on what has been maintained rather than allow artistic knowledge to fade passed the point of no return. That is precisely what we are trying to achieve, so this heritage and knowledge can be passed on from generation to generation.

What styles of ceramics and ceramic art do you focus on?

We focus predominantly on traditional Khmer art, particularly the tradition of kbach, which is most evident in the stone carvings of the Angkor temples and at other historic sites around the country. Kbach-style ceramics are carved with representations of a variety of shapes found in nature such as lotus petals, leaves, flames and water, each of which have a particular meaning and can be used to tell a story.

We produce tableware, such as cups, plates and bowls, in the kbach style as well as decorative items. We also produce sculptures and reliefs related to Khmer culture, including stoneware representations of Buddha, Ganesh and Apsara dancers.

We use natural glazes in traditional styles and colours. Celadon, which produces jade-like greens, for example, has a long history in Khmer ceramics and Asian ceramics in general as jade has a lot of spiritual significance and meaning attached to it.

Many Asian countries produce ceramics. What are the differences between your products and the those from China, Vietnam or Thailand?

All our products are handmade. Although we produce many products on a fairly large scale they are all made with the care, love and passion that in most countries would normally only be seen in small artisanal ceramics workshops. In that sense what we do and the products we produce are very unique, not just in Asia but as far as I know worldwide.

By making everything by hand, we can obtain styles and finished products that would be impossible to reproduce using mass production factory techniques, such as those employed in Vietnam and China. Factories tend to use lower firing temperatures that are compensated for by adding additives to the clay. Our clay is entirely natural and our high temperature firing process means that products are durable, lead-free and food safe.

What are the main challenges you face producing ceramics in Cambodia?

Over the years, the project has faced many difficulties and producing ceramics in Cambodia can certainly be a challenge. We do not have suppliers for many materials. Our clay we source ourselves from the ground, we make our own glazes, we build our own kilns. Basically, everything we need we have to source or make ourselves.

In most developed countries, you can easily source the right materials and resources for each new project but each time we have a new design we have to start from scratch. Even the tools we use for shaping, carving and trimming the clay are made from what we can find available locally, everything from recycled bicycle spokes to carving knives made out of cut down saw blades, among many other things.

If someone visits Siem Reap, how can they participate in your project?

Firstly come visit us. We are always interested to hear other people’s opinions and suggestions. We offer factory tours so visitors can come and see local artisans at work, using traditional potter’s wheels and moulding and sculpting the clay. We also offer several activities at our centre, such as pottery classes that give visitors the opportunity to practice making Khmer-style ceramics and to use a traditional foot-powered potter’s wheel, and pottery painting classes that are suitable for all age groups, including young children. We also have many products for sale at reasonable prices, and we use the revenue from product sales to reinvest and expand the project.

Who buys the ceramics you produce?

Many of our products are sold locally to visitors and local businesses, including high-end hotels and restaurants across Cambodia. We also export to Europe and the United States, Canada and Australia to customers that include home decor stores and designer boutiques. Though the quality of our products is very high, our prices are very reasonable by international standards.

What are your plans for the future?

We want to continue to expand and reach other communities in Cambodia. As a social enterprise, we want to help as many communities as possible, particularly disadvantaged groups, and create new training and job opportunities. As such, we are keen to diversify our products and include more artisans in different fields, while maintaining good working conditions for our employees and trainees.