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Now the liveliest part of Phnom Penh, the National Museum neighborhood has seen a bohemian renaissance take hold in recent years between 172 and 178 Streets. Packed with shops, galleries and dining spots as well as low-rise apartment buildings crowned with electric cables hanging haphazardly above the sidewalk, the area has as its focal point the majestic brick-red pagoda-style National Museum of Cambodia. The museum adjoins the Royal University of Fine Arts, both of which were closed in the 1970s under the brutal Khmer Rouge dictatorship. Thirty years on, a creative community is thriving again. Neighborhood streets on any given day are the scene of film crews setting up, traditional dance rehearsals and photo shoots.
Garden of Desire- The Siem Reap-born and French-educated designer Ly Pisith, uses his memories of the violent clashes under the Khmer Rouge regime as inspiration for designing much of his high-end contemporary jewelry crafted from silver, gold and natural stones.
By Petrina Fernandez, 2018
Ly Pisith was just eight years old when his parents and siblings were taken away by the Khmer Rouge in 1975. He would never see them again.
“We were relatively high society. I had had a really good education, but when we had to leave our home, my father told me, ‘Forget everything we have taught you. It’s not real. What’s going to happen now is real.’ It disturbed me greatly,” says Ly. “I didn’t know how terrible war could be. I tried to adapt. I lived on the streets before being sent to a refugee camp in Thailand, and then was sent to France to study. I was very alone, always alone.”
In a rented attic room in Paris’ 14th arrondissement, overlooking a garden and neighbouring rooftops, he would fight many internal battles throughout the five years he lived there while in his twenties. “I had so much anger in me,” he recounts. “I was in a strange society with a new culture and language. The only way I could think of to handle the situation was to try to understand it, so I studied their music and art. I discovered opera. I had no money but would queue up for half a day outside concert halls and buy spare tickets sold for cheap 15 minutes before the curtains rose. There’s so much big emotion in opera, and even though I couldn’t understand the words, I could feel the music, big and often sad.”
His words are especially surreal in pewter boutique Loyfar at Bangsar Village II in Kuala Lumpur, where light calls out glints of filigreed and hammered metal in a space infused with serenity. Included here are Ly’s own jewellery, silver beautifully worked to create a sense of movement and occasionally adorned with quiet stones. Jewellery-making was a craft he dabbled in in Paris, when the skies were grey and heavy with rainclouds and he was confined indoors. Too poor to lavish his then girlfriend with gifts, he began making pieces with wires and beads. He was not unused to such work, carving toys from wood as a child to indulge an imagination fuelled by books. Keeping his hands busy allowed his mind to travel freely and it wandered from memories of Cambodia to pleasant daydreams of destinations unknown.
Design became the core of his career, spent at a clutch of celebrated design labels such as Alain Mikli and Philippe Starck. A job sent him to Singapore and, so close to the home of his boyhood, he resolved on two decisions. The first was to take a sabbatical to pursue his passion for jewellery and the second was to expel the fear and anger burning within him by returning to Cambodia. Facing his demons required the full reservoir of courage he had built across a lifetime of struggle and survival, but the price was worth the peace he eventually found.
Siem Reap is today headquarters to Garden of Desire, the 10-year-old jewellery studio run by Ly and his artisans, young and hungry youths whom he found on the streets and trained as apprentices. Silver is his favourite metal to work with — “I liked that it was used to kill vampires and werewolves in horror movies, and kings in the olden days used silver spoons to detect poison as it tarnishes upon contact,” he says — and his signature design brevity speaks volumes. Many pieces tell a story. A silver cuff bracelet outlines the silhouette of a father and mother carrying a baby towards a lotus flower. This tale of devotion almost pulses with dynamism in the clever slants of the figures, and the form of the baby is left hollow, as seen from the underside, to represent an empty vessel waiting to be filled.
“I call this piece Hope,” says the award-winning designer, tracing the bracelet. “The lotus flower is a symbol of purity, despite growing in murky water. You can grow from blackness into something beautiful. I have been an orphan since I was eight years old, and this happened to millions of people of my generation. This piece expresses the hope of Cambodia’s new generation.”
Motifs are not restricted to the floral. Garden of Desire has collections depicting everyday life and sights, from farmers toiling in the fields to grand Angkorian temples. Two pairs of squared earrings in the glass cabinet at Loyfar, where his work is exclusively stocked in Malaysia, bear Afghan lapis lazuli and Cambodian chalcedony respectively. He prefers the muted grace of such stones, instead of the ostentatious sparkle of brighter gems, believing that they better emphasise the wearer’s energy and spirit, rather than distract from it.
“Garden of Desire is the garden I wish I had known, that I now wish to grow,” says Ly. “I can’t erase the past but I can move on. It represents my struggle to love my country again, and I do now, even the Khmer people. The garden isn’t just about jewellery, though. It’s also the youngsters we tend to through the studio, many of whom now have their own families. I will always carry sadness with me but I have found peace. And in that, I have found freedom.”
This article first appeared on Aug 6, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.
Story by Catherine Karnow, June 2018
Ly Pisith designed high-end spectacles in Paris for the likes of Alain Mikli and Philippe Starck before returning to Cambodia in 2008. Now he creates luxury silver jewellery with semiprecious stones and even sandstone for his brand Garden of Desire.
‘Angkor has such a rich past of arts and culture – history and culture is in our backyard,’ says Pisith. ‘The temples and their details are magnificent. I soaked up all that [when I returned], as well as the people and surroundings.’
He says Cambodian artisans are increasingly tapping into their natural surroundings for inspiration as a counterpoint to the country’s dark past. ‘I don’t just tell beautiful stories with my work, but I also tell of the past of this country, my past and future here. We still have quite a long way to catch up, but I hope that we will all get there together.’
Nicky Sullivan, April 2015
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.”