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Garden of statues celebrates Cham culture

Update: June, 23/2013 - 17:33

Musical statues: Ngau Hung (Impromptu) depicts two instrumentalists playing Ghinang and Baranung drums.

by Vuong Tam

"You'd better visit Ho Thai Thiet's garden of statues." I remember the advice from one of my friends on my way to Phan Thiet City in the central province of Binh Thuan.

"There you can enjoy the fresh breath of Cham culture and listen to the sound of a stone Baranung drum, thanks to sculptor Thiet, who is also the head of Fine Arts Branch in Binh Thuan Province."

The Cham ethnic group has lived a long time in south-central Viet Nam, mainly in the provinces of Ninh Thuan, Binh Thuan and An Giang, creating a unique and diversified culture. Sculptor Thiet has spent a lot of time and effort in putting that cultural essence and spiritual life into his statues.

On meeting Thiet for the first time, I can tell he has the feelings of a person living far from his home town. That might be the inspiration for Ngau Hung (Impromptu) statue, which depicts two instrumentalists playing Ghinang and Baranung drums.

Thiet is a moderate and modest man. His eyes shine with happiness when contemplating his "spiritual children", his scuptures. He introduces and calls their names for me: This is Net Cham (Cham Feature), Hoa Cua Dat (Flowers of the Earth), or over there is Thi Tham (Whispering) and Tinh Ca Lang Gom (The Love Song of the Ceramic Village).

Seeing me observing the Doi Nuoc (Carrying Water) statue, he explains how it was made.

"Carrying water on their heads was how I remember the Cham people living next to my home town. As a child born near the coast, I can sympathise and understand the difficulties of water shortages in sandy areas where they live. The images of women and children fetching water every day in the heat and wind torments my soul."

Impressive: Phan Ri Cua Monument by Thiet located in Binh Thuan Province

So in his garden he created the images of a mother and her son carrying water on their heads. Despite all the difficulties and distresses of life they seem full of happiness and promise.

Thiet says he got accustomed to Cham images when he was young and the songs and dances of their festivals still remain in his mind. After graduating from the Sai Gon National College of Fine Arts and returning home in 1975 he found more Cham friends and became more aware of the Cham culture.

In fact, Thiet's sculptures are Cham sculptures, with the dances of stone demonstrated through Cau Nguyen (Pray) or Len Thap (Ascend Tower). Among his works, the Hoa Cua Dat (Flower of the Earth) statue won first prize in an exhibition held by the Binh Thuan Fine Arts Association in 2004. Subsequently, Thiet received awards for Ngau Hung in 2007 and Net Cham in 2008, adding up to nine awards, eight of which were for Cham works.

His Cham statues are different from those by other sculptors because they express movement that can stimulate the imagination of the viewers. While other sculptors focus on individual experience and meditation, Thiet's statues consist of at least two characters.

When he was young, he and his family used to scrape out a living on a salt farm which required the joint effort of the whole community, especially when raking the salt in the scorching heat.


Keen craftsman: Sculptor Ho Thai Thiet whose works have been inspired greatly by Cham culture.

"It was a life of sharing, in which the individual cannot survive alone," he says.

That's why Thiet's sculptures tend to consist of groups of statues rather than individuals.

Additionally, studying their social life he discovered strong attachments were formed when encountering poverty or natural disasters. Cham always protected each other to survive and preserve their cultural heritage, which has been profoundly expressed in Thiet's works.

Strong and silent: Thi Tham (Whisper) statue. — VNS Photos

He is the creator of most of the historical statues in the province, like Chien Thang Doc Hoi Long (Hoi Long Slope Victory), Tuong Dai Ky Niem (Memorial Statue) or Chien Thang Nga Hai (Nga Hai Victory). Recently, in an art exhibition focusing on the Cham of Binh Thuan, Thiet's statue depicted the activities of a traditional Cham ceramic village.

"I was born in the Year of the Buffalo, so I have to work hard," Thiet said.

Sculpting is hard work, with blocks of stone, and blood when the sculptor first brandishes his hammer. Like a buffalo ploughing industriously in the field, Thiet devotes his life to restlessly working on Cham sculptures while around him are images of lissome Cham dancers leaning and stretching their fingers to the sobbing tunes of a Saranai trumpet. —VNS

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