How can statue–jacking and theft of Cambodia's national heritage be prevented? The solution may lie in providing collectors with excellent copies at low prices. And that's what Artisans d'Angkor is doing. This atelier, located to the southwest fringe of Siem Reap, provides employment for disadvantaged youth––making handcrafted products of lacquerware, silk, wood and stone. The center is visitor–friendly, with many artisans working on–site.
The artisans make excellent replicas of Khmer statuary in stone, wood, and other materials––and that includes sandstone pieces weighing up to 100 kilograms. Among the replicas are pieces like a well–known portrait head of Jayavarman VII. However, an authentic Angkorian statue would look aged. To replicate this to some degree, for some statuary artisans use a traditional polychromy finishing technique. Sandstone or wood is coated with numerous layers of lacquer and then ornamented with copper leaf gilding and natural pigments, which gives an aged look to the piece, similar to the original artifact.
Artisans d'Angkor is remarkable success story. Back in the 1990s, tourist shops in Siem Reap used to import fake "Khmer handicrafts" from Indonesia. To remedy this situation, Artisans d'Angkor was launched with support from European NGOs and the Cambodian government. The enterprise made a modest turnover of US$89,000 in 1999, became self–financed in 2001, and by 2004, the annual turnover was an astonishing US$4.5 million. The venture has created jobs for more than 800 artisans and others. Many of the jobs created are in poor rural areas––a dozen different villages are involved, with many artisans actually working in their villages. On average, artisans earn US$860 a year, which is well above the national average income of US$300. All artisans belong to the Artisanat Khmer association, which owns 20 percent of the company shares, guarantees levels of pay, and oversees social and medical welfare of the workers––a first for Cambodia. Half of the Artisans d'Angkor shares are privately owned; the government owns the remaining 30 percent. For more about this remarkable enterprise, consult their website: www.artisansdangkor.com.
Deep in the catacombs of a Khmer temple, Lara is having a bad–hair day. A gargantuan three–headed stone deity has lurched to life to stop her from stealing a powerful piece. Bad news: the wrathful deity not only has three heads, it has six arms––each of them wielding a massive sword––and the magazines of Lara's guns are both empty. But against all odds, Lara––clad in skin–tight black––defeats the giant and escapes the temple with a screeching harpy on her tail. She flees into the jungle, clutching the precious magic piece to her bosom.
The movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider presented an awful dilemma for Cambodia's Department of Cinema and Cultural Diffusion in Phnom Penh––the tiny office that oversees all filming within the kingdom. Gearing up to film the movie in late 2000, Hollywood promised to put Cambodia on the map as an exotic location. But the subject of the movie was highly sensitive: the plunder of Angkorian temples by outsiders, interested only in personal profit. The blockbuster movie would attract lots of tourists to Cambodia––one of Asia's poorest countries. But would Angelina Jolie's character––a tomb raider––glorify the looting of ancient temples? Would Lara Croft send out the wrong message to the world?
The deputy director for culture at Paris–based UNESCO wrote a letter to Cambodian officials urging them not to give Paramount Pictures permission to make the film in Cambodia, claiming that associating Angkor's image with a film about tomb raiders wasn't appropriate. There's more than a casual connection here: the monuments of Angkor constitute a World Heritage site, under the protection of UNESCO since 1992. And the UN has been exerting moral pressure on museums and collectors worldwide to return art stolen from Angkor: some countries––France, Holland, the USA––have obliged by cracking down on the import, sale or even transit of Khmer artifacts. In the end, after script revisions were called for, permission was granted for the making of Tomb Raider, and the crew spent a week filming on location at Angkor. The final cut of Tomb Raider, released in 2001, features about 25 minutes of footage of the majestic ruins of Angkor.
Michael Buckley is author of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook, a comprehensive guide to Indochina (Avalon Travel Publishing, USA, 2006).
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