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When and why did you come to Cambodia?
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How did the Khmer Ceramics project begin?
Why did you choose Siem Reap-Angkor as the location for the project?
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As a social enterprise, what are your primary goals?
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In the years since it was launched, how has the project evolved?
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.