Art and Folklore
Cambodia's Artistic Legacy
Cambodia has created a great legacy of tremendous beauty and an artistic imprint that is derived from religious influences, history, and folklore. Cambodia’s artistic history has been shaped and developed over nearly two millennia into the beautiful and unique aspects that define Khmer culture today. Traditional Cambodian art consists of stone carvings, murals, textiles, silversmithing, music, and dancing.
The Angkor Wat
One of the oldest forms of Cambodian art is the Angkor Wat which dates back to the 12th century. The Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s most beautiful and unique monument. It is the largest religious building in the world, known for its monumental size, detailed and skilled craftsmanship, and preservation. After the fall of the Khmer Empire, the Angkor Wat and many other sites were abandoned and overgrown, allowing the intricate carvings and architecture to survive deep within the jungle. In the 1600s, Spanish and Portuguese missionaries discovered the large, beautiful temples and described it as an amazing city. However, the explorers were ignored, leaving the temples forgotten until French naturalist Henri Mouhot and artist Louis Delaporte uncovered the stone temples in the 1860s. To this day, these relics of the Khmer Empire astonish foreigners and locals and are large aspects of Cambodia’s unique and beautiful culture. The stone carvings and statues engraved on the walls represent mythological, celestial, and earthly beings as well as sacred legends and stories based on Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. The Angkor Wat also embodies three elements: water, air, and stone. Reflected in the water of the reservoirs, the five towers represent the quincunx. Air circulates gently through the balustraded windows and throughout the vast monument. Additionally, the architecture is made of sandstone which was used to fortify the structure and create lasting art through time.
Another aspect of Cambodian art is painting. Unfortunately, the majority of traditional paintings were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge because any form of art and writing were seen as propaganda. However, some murals still exist today in the Silver Pagoda of Phnom Penh, Wat Bo Temple in Siem Reap, and Wat Kampong Tralach Leu in the province of Kampong Chhnang.
Textiles and Ceramics
Other popular forms of art include textiles and ceramics which date back to the first century. The practice of silk weaving originates from the Angkorian period where textiles were used to trade and barter for other items. Silk weaving comes from two different forms: the ikat technique which creates diverse patterns, and the “uneven twill” technique which produces single or two-color fabrics. Nowadays, most textiles follow these ancient techniques to create beautiful symbols depicting Cambodian statues and beliefs. Another aspect of Cambodia’s art history is silversmithing which dates back centuries. Previously, silver was crafted and shaped to make weaponry, ceremonial and symbolic objects, and coins. Today, silversmithing is used to create jewelry, boxes, and souvenir items that are embellished with animals, fruit, mythology, and Angkor inspired symbols.
More popular forms of Cambodian art include dance and music. Traditional dance dates back to over 1000 years ago and was considered as a bridge between the spiritual and natural world. Cambodian dancing is made up of three different categories: classical, folk, and vernacular dance.
Classical dance was used as a form of entertainment for the royal court and to pay homage to tradition. This style of dance uses complex movements which require flexibility, accuracy and control to depict ancient Hindu mythology and symbols.
Folk dance is another popular aspect of Cambodian art and portrays cultural traditions and rural lifestyles. Folk style is faster than classical dance and the movements and gestures are not as stylized.
Vernacular dances are performed in large social gatherings and combine both contemporary and traditional instruments and gestures. Music is also a significant part of Cambodia’s art history and is highly influenced by ancient Khmer traditions and Westernization.
A Lasting Legacy
Although traditional art is a prominent feature of Cambodian culture, the preservation and importance of art is declining through each generation due to the elimination of artists during the genocide, the decline of stories, and the lack of time and resources to continue the legacy. It is imperative to preserve and revive Cambodian artwork because it recognizes the solidarity of our community and the continual need to strengthen those cultural bonds.
Due to the Cambodian genocide, much of the traditional literature and stories have become lost over time. In an effort to preserve these age-old stories, Katelyn Saiki, the founder and president of CRAFT, created a children’s book called Khmerical to help students locally and abroad learn Cambodian stories and ensure the survival of Khmer culture. The stories featured in this book were gathered from villagers in the Kampong Chhnang province in Cambodia and have been verified for authenticity and accuracy by the local principal and director of the elementary school.
CRAFT has formed partnerships with multiple schools and libraries in both the United States and Cambodia, several branches of the Orange County YMCA, and Pretend City Children’s Museum. We have distributed copies of these books worldwide and held local live story times to preserve this important facet of Cambodian culture and history. We hope to continue to expand our outreach and spread awareness of Cambodia’s beautiful culture and storytelling through Khmerical. Please purchase a copy of this book today to connect with unheard stories and help revive Cambodian folklore! All proceeds will go towards purchasing art supplies and books for underserved schools in the rural countryside of Cambodia.
Khmerical: A Collection of Cambodian Folktales comprises three traditional stories that have been passed down for generations among families in Cambodia. In one story, a clever rabbit devises a sneaky plan to steal an old lady's bananas without getting caught. Another story involves an ungrateful crocodile who is outsmarted by an old man and a rabbit. The third tale explains the reason why cows don't have any top teeth and why tigers have stripes. All three folktales are not only lighthearted, but also hold the key to unlocking lessons of the past for future generations to come. The title "Khmerical" is a play on words of "chimerical," which references mythological animals and captures the fantastical, imaginary, and visionary perspective of Khmer folktales.