Central Highland, the land of wind and sunshine, is known for its culture of the gong and epic tales usually told beside the flickering flames. However, few people know that there are also artisans who spend their entire lives creating wooden statues which can tell the old epic stories. Rough, rustic and innocent, or lively are some words that describe the beauty of these wooden statues. Ethnic minorities use this long-standing art form for spiritual purposes such as worship or burial ceremonies.
Wood carving art is a unique craft that demonstrates the identity of indigenous communities. In the past, these wooden statues were commonly used in burial ritual houses (tombs). People believed that “all things have souls.” This was the last time that they could show their love before sending them to the other world. Today, these wooden statues are used for different purposes, such as decorating houses and altars. An indispensable part of Central Highland’s customs and traditions, wood carving contests are held every year to find the most outstanding artisans of the villages. Skillful hands and creative thinking mark the cultural and spiritual heart of this region.
Usually, the statues are inspired by familiar images, such as daily farm chores, community activities, love of humanity, love of nature, and festive rituals. The statues can be of women pounding rice and weaving clothes or men hunting in the forest and harvesting in the field. Or they can reflect the festive atmosphere of a village with happy faces of people playing musical instruments, dancing and drinking traditional wine. Those “immaterial” cultural features are “materialized” by the artisans, and become a unique feature in the culture of the mountainous area. Each ethnic group in Central Highland has its own unique culture and customs. Depending on the geographic location or ethnic group, the artisans choose different sculptural themes. For example, in the statues of the Ede people, the most common theme is the image of a woman. That’s because they believe women are the center of all things, bringing and extending life for thousands of generations.
None of the Central Highland artisans have attended art school. Their skills come from love and a self-learning process that is passed down from generation to generation. All of their works are derived from their own view of the world and things associated with their original culture. Central Highland statues reflect and describe the real life of the people living there.
To make a sculpture, the artisan needs a chunk of wood, a machete, and a chisel. The results are naked and rudimentary. They stand proudly under the sun and the wind. The wood is first carved with a machete and then the smaller lines are created with a small chisel. The silhouette of the Central Highland statue is often rough and hard but these lines reflect the quality of the local people who are simple and strong. The statues, when finished, are sometimes unbalanced and not elaborate, but they are very true to life.
Ksor H’nao is an elite artist. He lives in Kep village, Dong Da district, Pleiku, Gia Lai city. In addition to being knowledgeable about wood statue carvings, he has extensive musical talents and knowledge of mountainous cuisine. In 2015, he received the title of elite artist in the field of folk knowledge due to his efforts to protect and preserve the cultural characteristics of the area. Young artisans also try to preserve this culture. A number of works from H’re artists living in the South Central area have been exhibited at Art Space, Anantara Hoi An Resort, a new venue that combines art and cuisine.
The wooden statues of Central Highland are not only a manifestation of spirituality but they are a unique handicraft of the people living in the red ground highlands. Artisans tell their traditional epic tales by creating lively and emotional wooden sculptures. From the tombs, the Central Highland wooden folk statue is now emerging and is a way for artisans to explore more flexible topics.
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