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Ly Pisith, the artist behind bespoke Siem Reap jewellery store Garden of Desire, has finally received international recognition for his stunning – and famously philosophical – designs.The awards, now in their fourth year, seek to recognise and promote locally crafted contemporary designs that are likely to meet the demands of national and international markets. For the ASEAN Selection, only one designer from each country is selected to represent that country each year.
The theme for the awards was “Inspired by wisdom”, and Ly was recognised for his use of traditional craftsmanship and materials in his “Khmer collection”, a series that recalls the vast carvings in the Angkorian temples with its use of grey sandstone carved in a floral motif set in sterling silver.
According to Rinrada Kroeksupharak, a project coordinator for Peakchan Company Limited, the official organisers of the 2015 Innovative Craft Awards, Ly’s work truly reflected the theme through the use of sandstone and traditional techniques to create innovative designs that could be worn every day and in line with modern trends.
For Ly, whose work is famously philosophical, the work is more than a reflection on that theme. It is also a reflection on Cambodian society.
“I have been asked by so many people: Why do I use this stone – it’s not a precious stone? They say it doesn’t have any value,” he said.“But to me, this is the most precious stone in Cambodia. It is what we used to build our temples. It’s our heritage, our identity, and we mustn’t forget where we are from. Too many people now, the rich people, they forget their own people, their country. And we mustn’t forget where we’re from.”
Ly eschews materialism to the greatest extent that he can. Employing simple materials into his art, yet finding their richer, deeper meaning is very much in keeping with his tradition. “For me, jewellery doesn’t have to be ‘nice’, or ‘beautiful’,” he said. “It shouldn’t take over your personality, it should complement it. It should express something about you, rather than overshadowing you.”
Most importantly for Ly, jewellery-making is about transformations, as much of the materials he works with as of himself and, in the process, of his own very complicated relationship with Cambodia, the country of his birth and the place where almost every member of his family met their deaths during the almost four years of the Khmer Rouge.
“When you create, it helps you to see who you are, and how you are. And to see the cage that you’re in. You can’t get out of the cage if you don’t know you’re in it. Many people think they are free, but only because they don’t know themselves.”
Ly’s contribution to their self-discovery lies also in his jewellery. While every single piece has a story – whether it is a meditation on man’s relationship with nature, or a sensually curved bracelet representing hope – but none of the stories are explained alongside the displays.
“People choose their pieces,” he said. “But they don’t always know why. That’s why I don’t have cards explaining what they’re about. It’s a garden. People can see for themselves what they make of it.” For a long time it would seem that Ly was trapped in a cage made from a hatred of his own country. But he is coming to terms with his past and, with his last known relative, Cambodia itself.
“I am here for good now, and I am learning to love this country again. There is still hope for Cambodia.”
This article first appeared in Phnom Penh Post.