The ancient art of lacquer work is being revived in Siem Reap, thanks in part to two French brothers who emphasise the use of natural ingredients at their unique workshop. Words and photographs by Ellie Dyer.
Surrounded by shelves of vibrant pigment and gold leaf, a budding artisan pastes tiny fragments of eggshell onto a bowl, his hand steady as he covers the vessel in a fractured pattern. It will later be layered with coat after coat of lacquer, producing a lustrous work of art ready for a global market.
The studio of French brothers Eric and Thierry Stocker, located down a dusty road in Siem Reap, is at the forefront of Cambodian lacquer work — an art form that uses tree sap and metal leaf to produce distinctive designs in polished hues of red, black and gold.
The craft has a long history. In ancient times, understanding of lacquer techniques and ornamentation spread through global silk routes. Knowledge passed from China to Japan and made its way to Southeast Asia, where it was utilised for waterproofing containers and decorative purposes.
In Cambodia, remains of 15th century lacquer work have been spotted on bas reliefs at Angkor Wat temple, while French colonial rule saw sap exported for industrial purposes. The viscous liquid can be used in boat building and engine work due to its resilience to high temperatures. But, like many art forms, the craft was hit by the turbulence of the latter half of the 20th century. Many artisans died, preventing knowledge of the craft from being transmitted to future generations of their families.
“Step by step we want to introduce it again,” explains 55-year-old Eric Stocker, a French expert who initially came to Cambodia in 1998 to help revitalise the art as part of a European Union project.
“The first time I came, it was difficult. I needed to learn Khmer — to speak, to read, and to write the technical book, 700 pages in Khmer, for the memory of all the techniques,” recalls the artist, who began training with a lacquer master at the age of 16.
“After three years I had trained more than 200 young people in the techniques of lacquer ware and gilding.”
The project was followed by the creation of locally-based design company Artisans Angkor in 2002. Stocker worked with the business for a decade until he set up his own studio called Angkor Artworks with his brother Thierry, creating the brand Eric Stocker Laque et Textures last year.
The current workshop, set in an airy house and surrounding gardens, emphasises the use
of natural substances and
Wide paintbrushes are made from pig hair, while artistic implements have previously been fashioned from motorbike parts and iron work for building foundations.
Eric also ventures into forests in Kampong Thom and Ratanakiri provinces to collect sap from lacquer trees — the location of which, after years of experience, he knows well.
“When I have three or four kilos I can work for two or three months, but we collect only in the rainy season. So I await the rain,” he says, adding that each tree can produce only four to five grams of sap per day.
Stocker also celebrates nature with his finished designs — often rendered in the distinctive red and orange shades of cinnabar pigment — which are rooted in the organic world.
Fish and flower imagery feature in the art works, while lily pads and papaya leaves are drenched in lemon juice and then laid over canvases. Over hours, the lemon’s acid strips away at painted layers beneath, leaving a distinctive imprint of leaf veins behind.
“I’ve never seen this technique before and we sell across the world,” says Stocker. “For me what is important is to continue to work with the old techniques, but we adapt.”
While looking to the past, the artist is ensuring the future. Having gained knowledge of sign language, Stocker is training a number of deaf workers aged between 19 and 27. They practise moulding, gilding and sanding techniques, delicate egg shell work, and the use of lacquer.
Like the art form itself, which can see up to 20 layers of lacquer applied on a single piece, it can be a lengthy process. Training can take up to a decade to complete.
Maintaining the environment is equally key for an art form that is so rooted in natural substances, and Stocker hopes that one day lacquer plantations will take root in Cambodia again.
“What is important now in Cambodia is to plant again the lacquer tree, because it’s the base of our work,” he says. “You are independent when you know what nature and the environment can give to you.”