In the midst of Battambang province, artwork emerges from an unlikely source - the lifeless trunk of a palm tree. Reaching over two meters in height, this ordinary-looking tree harbours the striking designs of Keo Sobin, a local artist.
From a seven-headed dragon to King Jayavarman VII, Sobin’s carved patterns attract the inquisitive gaze of passersby.
A 33-year-old resident of Wat Kandal village in Battambang town, Sobin was initially an electronics student at the National Polytechnic Institute of Cambodia (NPIC). Yet, following his graduation, he veered away from electronics to embrace a lifelong passion - the arts. He spent a year mastering drawing under the guidance of another artist, enriching his abilities through diligent research and study of ancient temple walls.
“Although I gained electronic skills, my inherent desire for drawing led me to this path. I aspire to live through my art, promoting Cambodian arts and culture,” Sobin shared.
After earning his degree in 2017, he has honed his skills independently, furthering his dedication to his craft.
His independence extends beyond his art. Despite his familial roots in Banang village, Sdao commune, he opted for solitude within Wat Kandal. His living is earned through the expression of his artistic talents in carvings and drawings.
Reflecting on his six-year art journey, Sobin revealed his works adorn public spaces in parts of Battambang province. Many, however, remain unaware that these drawings and sculptures are the product of his creative endeavours.
Explaining the creative process, Sobin begins with a chosen palm tree stump, typically about 2.5 meters long with a diameter of 0.70 meters. The stump is then transformed into a canvas where traditional Khmer artistic styles bring to life tales from the Great Khmer Empire, featuring legendary figures like Indra Devi and Jayavarman VII.
Sobin elaborated on his multifaceted skills, which encompass not only painting but also intricate carving. His creations range from bamboo paintings to lanterns adorned with flower carvings. These works are set to be displayed at the upcoming “Clean City” exhibition in Battambang, an event showcasing art from various nations, including Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Keo Sobin’s artwork finds a home on various surfaces, even gourds and eggshells. His traditional Khmer themes add artistic value to what is usually discarded, an initiative contributing to environmental sustainability.
“By transforming discarded items into valuable pieces, we reduce environmental waste. These materials are easily accessible, requiring only our skill to reshape them,” Sobin commented.
Sobin believes his role as an artist also involves nurturing future generations. He expressed his willingness to teach the youth and children, fostering appreciation for the legacy of the Khmer ancestors.
Keo Sobin’s artistic process begins with polishing the chosen palm tree trunk to smooth any roughness. He then polishes the surface further before commencing the drawing in three dimensional patterns. He uses black to accentuate his drafted shapes.
The artist derives the majority of his income from selling lanterns carved from coconut shells, priced at $5 for standard carvings and up to $15 for more intricate ones. He also sells bamboo lanterns, ranging from $15 to $30, depending on their complexity. His clientele now includes souvenir shops and restaurants who commission his coconut and bamboo lanterns.
His inaugural palm tree art was sold to a Frenchman for $500 to be showcased at a hotel in Battambang. However, Sobin revealed that he intends to donate his second palm tree artwork to a state institution, rather than sell it, if such a request is made.
Prak Sonnara, director-general of heritage and spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, voiced no objection to Sobin’s unique choice of material for his artwork. He affirmed there was no issue with sculptures of Cambodian heroes such as Indra Devi or King Jayavarman VII, even if they were carved on unconventional surfaces like wood, stone, or metal.
Sonnara stressed the importance of the location in which the art is displayed, stating: “If we carve it and place it inappropriately, it does not promote conservation. A statue of a deity, for example, should be situated in a designated place for prayer and worship. If positioned incorrectly, it detracts from conservation efforts.”
Keo Sobin’s artistic journey, marked by the unique intersection of tradition and innovation, continues to unfold on the trunks of Battambang’s palm trees. As he carves a niche for himself in the world of art, Sobin is also helping to carve a brighter future for Cambodia’s cultural legacy.