Small Feats of Clay

A Japanese-funded program nurtures the craft of pottery in Kompong Chhnang

rolea ba’ier district, Kompong Chhnang province – Against the backdrop of tree-covered hills, a family of artisans plied their trade. A woman kneaded a ball of clay, shaping it, forming the front features of an elephant. She passed it to her daughter, who applied four small mounds of clay for legs, shaped the tail and hollowed the inside. She handed it to her father, who smoothed it with what looked like a playing card and added the eyes with a gentle pinch of his fingers. It was then left in the deft hands of his 12-year-old son. Wielding a precision blade with calculating flicks of his wrist, he added decoration and a slot on its back.

The now fully recognizable elephant would dry in the sun with a few hundred of its cousins for a few days, before spending a day baking in a kiln.

The result is an unpolished elephant bank that children all over the world will use to save their allowances, until one day they break it open to count their accumulated treasure.

And it is with these little banks that Vi Nga and his family eke out a living, creating about 30 a day. After they are baked, Mr Nga will sell his elephants for 2,200 riel each (about $0.55) to a middleman, or in this case, a middlewoman, who in turn will sell them for 3,000 to 4,000 riel each to warehouses and vendors. After covering expenses, there’s not much left for Mr Nga’s family–and the costs of both clay and wood to fire his kiln are rising.

“There is barely enough for food to support my family,” Mr Nga said. “It doesn’t have much of a market. It is for kids. They buy them and smash them after they use them for their savings…. This is what most of the people in my village do to make money.”

The village is Sre Thmei commune’s Andoung Russei in Kompong Chhnang province’s Rolea Ba’ier district. Even the red dirt roads winding through the village bear witness to the fact that this is the heart of Cambodia’s pottery sector: They are littered with shards of baked brick-red clay, remnants of broken pots and vases.

“I have made this elephant design for two years, and the price is the same, 2,200 riel for one,” Mr Nga continued. “Yet the middleman keeps asking us to lower the price. More and more people are doing pottery now. You don’t need to go to school, you can just do this by watching family members…. Because of this job, my son doesn’t have enough time to read books.”

Down the road, Kim Hean was operating a pottery wheel. She said she had been producing vases for nearly 10 years.

“We barely bring in money from making this stuff,” she said. “We have to pay for everything: the soil, transportation and the wood.” Still, she admitted, there is a charm to the job. “Working in a factory might make more money. Somehow, though, I prefer doing this, because no one controls me or orders me to do what I don’t want to do.”

But it has become even more difficult over the years to sustain the family business. “Before, this vase my sister and I could sell for 10,000 to 15,000 riel for one. Now I can only sell it for 1,000 riel.”

Ms Hean’s father, Thuong Sorn, blames the current crop of artisans and ignorant buyers. “The young generation just want to make it as quick and as many as possible, just concerned about getting it done. They do not really care about quality and beauty, because that takes time,” he said. “Some buyers don’t really know if it is good or not. They just give you the same price whether it is nice or not. We hardly find buyers that take proper pride in compiling quality pieces.”

But Yim Pov, a businesswoman who buys the locals’ wares, says it is the artisans themselves who let their craft decline.

“The creators are only concerned about quantity,” Ms Pov said. “But the customer wants the product with beauty. The potters can think of a new design, but it turns out cracked, because they don’t know how to work it in the oven and what kind of clay works with their design.”

The Cambodia Traditional Pottery Project, run by the Nippon Foundation, is now working to reverse the decline in Anduong Russei village. CTPP sends expert Japanese artisans, or “Mashiko” potters, to live in the village alongside Cambodian potters, as well as running workshops to provide basic knowledge, securing sales routes and helping establish a pottery collective.

During the Angkorian era, artisans created high-quality glazed ceramics, according to Makiko Tanaka, a project coordinator at The Nippon Foundation. However, the advanced techniques used then have virtually disappeared in the intervening centuries.

“Pottery is now produced in areas such as Kompong Chhnang province, yet the finished products are not sufficiently strong, and are thus sold very cheaply,” said Ms Tanaka in an e-mail. “This makes it very difficult for people in Cambodia to survive as potters. In addition, due to the lack of pottery-making techniques, the ceramics that are currently used by Khmer people for their daily lives or those which are sold to foreign travelers as souvenirs are mostly cheap products imported from neighboring Vietnam or Thailand.”

While the CTPP sends traditional Japanese potters, the objective of the project is not to export Japanese pottery-making, Ms Tanaka explained. Instead, its purpose is to give technical help to let local potters to resurrect the tradition of Khmer pottery-making. “At the Nippon Foundation, we believe that this project not only lets Cambodian citizens take pride in their own culture but also helps them rebuild and carry on the tradition born in the golden era of pottery making in Cambodia.”

Andoung Russei’s resident Mashiko potter is Kitamura Takumi. Looking every bit the part, with a blue sweat-soaked bandana and clothes spotted with clay, Mr Takumi guided reporters through the entire process of making a pot, from selecting the proper clay to molding it into an attractive design.

“I went to university for architecture, and I like working with clay” Mr Takumi explained. “Plus my father was a potter, so I felt it was in my blood very much.” He said his current course meets five hours two days a week, and the class has 11 students, with seven women learning to create new pottery designs and four men learning to make glazes.

Ms Tanaka said the one of the program’s goals, beyond rebuilding the tradition of Khmer pottery, is to develop villages as “role models” for the rest of Cambodia, developing the craft so that more women are able to generate a stable income. CTPP chose to begin in Andoung Russei village because the soil in the area is highly suited for the craft.

As for Mr Nga, he has noticed the benefit such a program can bring to potters.

“Look at their product at that house,” he said, pointing next door where the workshop is held. “They can sell stuff as small as your palm and get $5. Look at this elephant bank,” holding up a piece about the size of a human head. “It costs less than a dollar.”

Still, he decided not to take advantage of the free course.

“I had my child’s name registered. But it was impossible for her to learn, because we need her here or we will starve. I know if they can learn this skill we can make more money, but our lives make it impossible.”

Ms Tanaka conceded that to attend the course requires a sacrifice. “One of the seven [female] members had a quarrel at home because her husband opposed her attending the workshop…. Some had to skip some of the workshops or could not finish their homework,” she said.

But Uon Pov, who completed a similar course with a different NGO and now helps recruiting potters for the workshop and serves as a mentor to those attend, said the sacrifice is worth it. “It is difficult to make ends meet, attending workshops without being paid. However, it is fantastic and very special for us that we now make good quality of products and we do not need to import them from foreign countries.”

 

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