The exhibition Reviving Pidan at the Insider Gallery of InterContinental Hotel features a rare form of Cambodian artwork whose creation requires a high degree of both technical skill and artistic ability.
Known as pidan, the works are silk tapestries in which the weavers portrayed scenes in traditional Cambodian style.
They were created by pidan master Soung Mich and his advanced weaving students in Takeo province as part of the organization Caring for Young Khmer’s weaving program. “Depending on the complexity of the design, a pidan can take from three months to one year to complete,” he said.
Weaving pidan involves hol, the Khmer word for the dying technique of ikat, which consists of tie-dying silk threads in a pre-determined pattern before weaving.
“It is very difficult to make pidan since there are so many ikats: between 100 and 1,000,” Mr. Soung said. “There needs to be variety in the image and the weaver must think carefully about the height and size of each element.”
His own work in the exhibition is a complex composition featuring four vertical panels done in gold and burgundy on a brown background. A vivid band of blue-grey sky serves as a dividing line between the image of a pavilion in which a person is resting and a princely figure on a horse surrounded by his attendants. The work illustrates an episode of the life of Prince Siddhartha, who later became the Buddha.
All pidan on exhibit were done with natural dye and, while traditional Buddhist and sailboat themes can be found in several of them, works vary in style and approaches ranging from series of minute patterns covering the whole surface of the fabric to scenes closer to the concept of painting.
One of Pech Kim’s works, for instance, consists of three horizontal rows with two large features in each one: two white horses pull an open carriage in which a couple is sitting with their two children, and a man is riding on an elephant with his attendant, who holds a parasol over his head. The horses are facing left in the first and third panels, and right in the middle panel, the break in pattern adding vitality to the overall picture, composed in burgundy, off-white and dark yellow on a brown background.
The artist Tampo, however, used small figures, filling the pidan with about every animal that can found in Cambodia, from geckoes and horses to buffaloes and monkeys. Mainly done in muted gold with touches of sky blue and green against deep purple, the dominant features are nagas—Cambodia’s mythical giant serpents—grouped two by two, their elongated bodies uniting to form the roof of a traditional pavilion.
Sueun Serynoch’s pidan also illustrates a chapter of the life of Prince Siddhartha, but this time in a work dominated by a pavilion as the central feature with two elephants below and two horse riders above, and rows of people
cheering at the bottom of the work, all this done in luminous burgundy, gold and off-white.
As with most traditional art forms, the origin of pidan is obscure. “However, the weaver’s supreme mastery of the hol technique enabling these vibrant images to be portrayed, and the commitment involved in their production attests to a once important role or roles in Cambodian life,” writes Gillian Green in her book “Traditional Textiles of Cambodia.”
Produced most abundantly during a 50-year period that ended around 1926, those woven hangings tended to feature ships, either clearly or in symbolic form, surrounded by marine life, from crabs and turtles to sharks and seahorses, she said. Birds, dragons and a tree of life, which represents the link between the human world and the underworld, also figured in the scenes, Ms. Green writes.
Pidan used to be commissioned by donors—probably wealthy ones, considering the quality and production cost of a piece—and given to pagodas to gain merit, she writes. But in the 1960s, pidan started to be produced as artworks for non-religious purposes.
Caring for Young Khmer (CYK) is the Cambodian division of the Japanese organization Caring for Young Refugees, which launched weaving training programs at the Khao I Dang refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. In the camp, a few Cambodian weavers would occasionally make pidan, said CYK director Harumi Sekiguchi.
But when CYK came to Cambodia in 1991 following the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement, this Japanese organization discovered that the tradition of pidan had nearly been lost and that weavers as a whole were unaware of it, she said.
CYK first focused on offering basic weaving courses. Since 1993, the organization has trained 172 weavers, said Chun Chan Bopha, the weaving project manager. An additional 500 weavers have also taken part in CYK’s 2-week mobile workshops, she said. The weaving center is in Trapaing Krasaing village, Trapaing Krasaing commune in Takeo province’s Bati district. The organization also runs the shop Pidan Khmer on Street 63 in Phnom Penh.
CYK has recently added pidan training for advanced students, Ms. Bopha explained. So far eight weavers have completed the course and four more are currently training with master Soung Mich.
Over the last decade, a group of Japanese volunteers that includes Ms. Sekiguchi have held pidan exhibitions in the hope of making this artform more widely known in the country.
They discovered that, while there are pidan in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum in the United States, the National Gallery of Australia and the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan, no major works were left at the National Museum in Phnom Penh by 1991, so the group has attempted to locate and donate fine pidan to the museum over the years.
The exhibition at the InterContinental Hotel runs through May 25.
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