Volume 2 No.9

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The Cambodian Craft Of Mask Making
By: Suy Se.Picture by:Jon Bugge. ( September, 2002 Volume 2 No.9 )

To don a mask, is to change characters: the art of masquerade. To make a mask, is to create a character: the art of genesis. This concept certainly did not escape the attention of the ancient Khmer people. Masked performance art traditionally depicted the Ream Ke - the Khmer version of the Indian epic. During the ceremonies the performers wear the masks and this symbolizes them becoming the characters. This is no more important when the characters are gods. Hanuman is often depicted and a performer, wearing the mask of Hanuman, has the task of acting like a god. The word in Khmer for mask is: "Khmok" and for mask maker is: "Cheang Khmok."
Orn Sitha is a teacher of mask making and lives in Phnom Penh. He gave an unclear description of the history of Khmer masks, saying: "We didn't know exactly yet where and when those masks appeared. It depends on the history of the Khmers: however we know that during the era of Angkor these masks were manufactured." Sitha surmised that they might have copied the masks that they had seen in the ancient royal palaces.
Orn Sitha is not only a mask teacher, but also a well-known mask maker of the Royal University of Fine Arts. Moreover, this teacher was born into a family of mask makers. It was a family that had prided itself on becoming the best mask makers in the kingdom. This legacy was passed on to him from his father , who was a highly skilled artisan. His father was commissioned to produce the finest examples of masks that were used exclusively by the Royal Palace. Sitha recalls first being aware of this artistic family craft: "Once when I was eight years old I saw my parents creating these kinds of things, then I began taking the resin of Marak to shape into animal statues."

It was in 1981 that he enrolled in the Royal University of Fine Arts, here he honed his inherited skills and perfected his art form. Traditionally the masks were made from the resin of Marak, which was extracted from a kind of tree called Kreuol. This resin, as well as serving the purpose of mask producing was also an important commodity. Its uses were varied and included the waterproofing of boats. In the clouded history of making masks, there is not a single source that gives the information of the origins clearly. However, Orn Sitha claimed that the usage of Marak resin did not signify the start of mask making. It had existed before and as he puts it: "it could be before the Angkorian period or during that we first began to create these things." In order to prolong the life of a mask, the Khmers would use the resin of Marak in making these masks. This was because this resin can protect the mask from water and insects; thus increasing its longevity. Nowadays, in his studio, Orn Sitha uses cotton paper, rather than pure Marak resin. The resin is from the jungle and is not as common as it used to be. On average a mask will take between three to five weeks to produce. This delicate and intricate work demands all the skills and patience of this master. First a clay mask is made and then a cement mould taken from it. Layer upon layer of cotton paper - soaked in glue - is placed to line in the mould.
There are ten layers, at least, that are used in this part of the process. The mask is removed and allowed to dry before the resin and the lacquer is applied. This process is to complete the adornments and headdresses of the masks. Then painstakingly painted with vivid colors and copious amounts of gold leaf - giving each its identity and character. Only then when the process is complete do the masks seem to come alive.
Regarding the production Orn Sitha stressed that: "it is not so difficult, but we need much patience and talent. The work is often laborious and makes us dirty." Most of the masks are produced according to the story of Ram Ke and they were used to enact every scene of each story. One mask could be used in different stories, but still represent the same character. At the same time that Angkor Wat is heralded as part of the great Khmer culture, so mask making deserves recognition of its place in this cultural legacy. "These masks could certify that Khmers really have their own culture. When they have just seen the mask of a giant or a monkey then they know that it is Khmer," said the mask-making teacher. However Orn Sintha foresees problems within Asia, nations such as Thailand, have similar masks to Cambodia. It is this reason that could cause tourists to misunderstand that Thai and Khmer are both the same. In fact, it is not like that, they are essentially very different in performance. They have different names: the the Ramayana, in Khmer it is called Ream Ke but the Thai side calls it the Ramayanak.

As a teacher, he sees this as an important part of his work: to ensure that Khmer traditions do not die out. He teaches his students the Khmer artworks and to cherish what has been Cambodian for so long. He emphasizes pride in their cultures rich history - that is so steeped in tradition. Sintha illustrates that a student can be good at mask making either, because they have great patience and will try and try again, or, because they truly understand the mask making process and its representation of traditional art form in a contemporary context. The contemporary context in this sense is tourism. Now the masks, which were so valued by the performers and provided the means for their performance, are more often than not sold to tourists. A finished mask will fetch anywhere between 150 -300 dollars. Orn Sintha is confident that this is how mask making will survive into the twenty first century. Tourism and its growth, will provide a crucial market and financial viability for this most ancient of crafts.
Finally he predicts that, "in the future I will create these masks in numerous amounts, if it is like the situation now in Cambodia, there will be a lot of tourists coming to visit Cambodia." According to Ministry of Tourism, the number of tourists would increase up to 800,000 in the next year of 2003. Some of these masses will end up buying a traditional mask as a souvenir of their visit. Orn Sintha is positive about the demand for masks from the tourist sector. Thus an ancient craft must find its future in modern tourism. Originally used to create illusion and hide the performers identity. It can now be seen as defining Khmer identity, whilst still creating the suspension of disbelief that this art form and its performers strive to achieve. This craft provides a working example of how tradition must look to trade to survive.