The Cultural and Personal History of Materials

Written by Dhishni de Silva

Material history is a significant element of an artist's practice. Materials can hold significant symbolic meaning, referring to cultural and historical events or personal memories. Art's materiality brings weight to the piece extending the work beyond the walls of its space and physicality, connecting it to an immaterial narrative of the past. Sopheap Pich utilises the materiality of bamboo and rattan as his primary textile for his works to speak about his past and culture, holding significance to the history of time and traditions in Cambodia. He can bring weight and representation as one of few Southeast Asian artists. Material histories that can be unpacked include generational history, current affairs and personal relations.

Sopheap Pich explores how personal and cultural aspects of the traditional craftsmanship in Cambodia influence his use of materials. The memories of his past and childhood growing up in Cambodia shaped how Pich currently approaches his work. Pich was born in Koh Kralaw, a rice farming town of Battambang, Cambodia, in 1971. His father was a farmer, teaching him the skills of making equipment, including spears and fish traps, to catch harvest. However, he left with his family to live in a refugee camp due to the Khmer Rouge in 1975-1979, later settling in the US as a political refugee in 1984 (Guggenheim, 2013). The cultural change of moving to the US at the early age of 13 was difficult, as it caused linguistic and geographic trauma instigating a sense of displacement (Rollins, 2009). He never could experience the Cambodian culture of visiting the temple and participating in traditional festivals. Neither the pop culture of America, which is essentially television, shopping and food due to his family's lack of money. Pich (2016) said in a Bloomberg interview that 'being a sort of outsider, who didn't have many friends' art was his escape from the real world, he knew that it was something that he would pursue no matter what. In 1991, he enrolled in painting at the University of Massachusetts, during the time he thought of himself mainly as a painter and discovered that '[his] work has to do with the memory of [his] childhood in Cambodia' (Pich, 2016 qtd. in Brilliant Ideas). Thus, Pich returned to Cambodia to explore how he could apply cultural and aesthetic knowledge to his contemporary practice. Upon his return to Cambodia, he had feelings of disconnection and privilege because using traditionally European materials such as paints. He felt it was an 'incongruous sort of medium to be working with, within Cambodian society' explains Guggenheim UBS map curator June Yap (Yap qtd. in Brilliant Ideas 2015). This resulted in his eventual choice of local materials, liberating him and allowing him to find a connection to the home he longed for. Based on his childhood experience, the bamboo and rattan materials reflected his memories of fish traps, basket weaving, and other utilitarian objects used in Cambodian communities to salute the past. Specifically, his sculpture Morning Spring (2002) ‘alludes to a Khmer fishing trap’ (Pich, 2016 cited in Brilliant Ideas), which he produced at such a large, oversized scale that a child would see them.
Exploring bamboo and rattan was vital as he found a sense of place and grounding in connecting with the local material that harmonised the community. He recognised that in the communities, basket weaving is a significant and prominent aspect of the community as it was their means of transporting, gathering and storing the harvest as well as a source of income for the baskets to be made and sold. For generations and generations, the Khmer people have been taught how to weave baskets, using the same method and techniques for hundreds of years.  Despite the tedious and time-consuming process of basket making, it holds great importance in Cambodia's tradition and culture because it encourages something to show for in their inheritance.

Morning Glory (2012) is another work that also expresses his memories of growing up in Cambodia. It is a large-scale sculpture representing the morning glory plant, which reflects Cambodia in its development and Pich's personal memories. This flower grows very easily where there is water. It is an abundant plant that became the primary food source for the Cambodian communities during the Khmer Rouge since they were not allowed to hunt or fish due to the military they were controlled by. What they were fed was the cheapest thing they could give: the morning glory soup. Even in its delicate and light physicality, it held so much importance for the Cambodian people, helping them survive. He created the sculpture at a large scale compared to the flower's original size, communicating the gravity and importance of the plant. The large scale and space Morning Glory covers give the piece so much presence, yet it is porous allowing the viewer can peer through the sculpture from every angle. The combination of imagery and materials holds significance to the Cambodian community in representing the uplifting and ongoing traditions of weaving and the bleak times of vulnerability symbolised in the morning glory flower. The materiality of the piece represents how strong the community was able to stay during the time.

Moreover, Boreth Ly Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Art History at the University of California, reveals that materials used in traditional craftwork are considered by ‘nationalists to be in danger of extinction, as modern machinery and more durable materials, such as plastic’ causing a possible supplant to traditional methods (Taylor and Ly 2012). In the Cambodian community, bamboo and rattan basket weaving is highly valuable as it is sustainable for the land and environment since bamboo can regenerate quickly and decompose, unlike artificial materials. Pich's internationally prominent work attempts to bring recognition to the material and revalue its importance. The use of bamboo and rattan in his sculptures speaks of a sense of self and cultural identity (Rollins, 2009). It also empowers the community as a reminder of their origins and lifestyle, needless of the trauma they've faced.

Additionally, major historical events in Cambodia, such as the Khmer Rouge, greatly influenced the series of works Pich created. Headed with Pol Pot the military overthrowing the monarchy, Cambodia experienced a devastating and traumatic period that killed 1.7 Cambodians. Others were forced to be overworked in rice farms, causing eventual death due to starvation, exhaustion and diseases. By leaving his home country that was suffering injustice and violence, deeply affected Pich. Whilst living in America as a refugee, he created paintings that reflected the memories of his country and the politics of that time (Pich, 2016, cited in Brilliant Ideas). He created ink portraits of the prisoners at Tuol Sleng prison, the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. Creating these works somewhat pulled that pain out of himself so he ‘didn't have to deal with it in the long run’ (Pich, 2016, cited in Bloomberg interview). When he began his exploration with rattan and bamboo material, he created pieces that spoke on that hinted at these dark histories. A temple inspired his first Buddha piece; what was significant about this temple was the red spots across the white walls of what is assumed to be people who had been killed. The form represents Buddhism and this sacred temple, but the strands left unravelled are dipped in red paint, suggesting blood. The interlacing of Buddha's subject matter and the materiality of bamboo represents how this significant historical event shifted Cambodian culture.

On the other hand, his piece Compound (2011) uses metal wire to join the rattan and bamboo, made from melted down shell casting and unexploded ordnances from the Vietnam war period. Sopheap Pich outlines in an interview with Jane DeBevoise that:

There is a lot of documentation about landmines and bombs, exploded or unexploded. In the 1980s, Cambodia was such a dangerous place. What's interesting is that all these leftovers of the war are recycled now in Thailand. It comes back in the form of metals to build houses. So the city is basically built on wars. That's my initial thinking. But how do I make the theme into an actual work? I am always interested in art, not politics. I just want to be an artist. But when you live in that condition, how do you make art? How do you make something meaningful ? (Pich qtd. in DeBevoise 2011). 

Pich acknowledges the power and weight of materiality to bring importance and attention to the past. He brings attention to the hardships but the strength the communities had to stay strong, showing how a shattered society can build a path to the future, nonetheless.
Furthermore, Compound (2011) responds to the dramatic and aggressive construction boom that depleted natural resources damaging the environment. The geometric structure of the piece emulates modern architecture yet integrated with tubular forms implying ammunition or bombs. Pich composes the idea of nature in the local materials of rattan, bamboo, and plywood to be contrasted with the threatening architecture as a way to speak on the deconstruction of land and its resources.

Pich has integrity in representing the historical events and cultural practices of Cambodia. However, he also brings emphasises to the journey materials go through in his current artistic practice. Sopheap embodies and draws attention to the material by providing an individual journey and story to the bamboo and rattan he uses. Whilst it would be cheaper and faster to buy the rattan and bamboo pre-prepared, he claims that he would rather be involved in the gathering process as he considers himself a maker. By resourcing materials locally, he connects with the materiality of bamboo and rattan. He's heavily involved in the physical process of the rattan and bamboo he gathers, developing a personality of the material by identifying its place and discovery. Russell Storer (2016, Brilliant Ideas), a curator for contemporary Asian art at Queensland Art Gallery, proposes that ‘you can really sense the detail and the human hand in every little element of his sculptures’. His consideration of intricate details and imperfections make the material unique and characterful, forming a newborn history to the material relevant to Pich and his artist practice. He accurately follows the methods of traditional bamboo harvesting yet pairs in with modern, contemporary sculptures, creating an interesting duality of the past with the present moment.

Sopheap Pich demonstrates the importance of the material in his work. In a physical sense, the materiality of bamboo and rattan creates visual storytelling for the viewer. The unfamiliar and unconventional use of materials suggests there is an enriching, meaningful narration behind them. The audience can sense an unprecedented gravity and history that connects the artist to his culture. From the perspective of Cambodians and even other Asian communities, Pich’s choice of traditional process ‘transmit his artistic ideas to the local audience’ (Taylor and Ly, 2012). He transforms something generational and historical and revolutionises it into something the whole world can appreciate without stripping it away from its origins and ancestry. In various ways, Sopheap Pich uses materials to narrate the past, including cultural traditions, historical events and personal memories, then navigates the materials to a new path where they form new meanings.

Figure 1: Sopheap Pich, Morning Glory 2011. Rattan, bamboo, plywood, steel, wire

Figure 2: Sopheap Pich, Compounc 2011. Rattan, bamboo, steel, wire

DeBevoise, J (2011) Interview and Presentation by Sopheap Pich,  Asia Art Archive in America. Available at:

Asian Contemporary Art Week (2016). Opening March 28- COMPOUND SOPHEAP PICH - Asia Contemporary Art Week. [online] Available at:

Artsy (n.d.). Sopheap Pich | Morning Glory (2011) | Artsy. [online] Available at:

Brilliant Ideas (2016) Bloomsberg Quick Tales. Sopheap Pich’s Bamboo and Rattan Explorations | Brilliant Ideas Ep. 42. [online] Available at:

Brilliant Ideas (2015) Guggenheim Museum. (n.d.). Artist Profile: Sopheap Pich on Rattan, Sculpture, and Abstraction. Available at:

Cultures Connect (n.d.). Cultures Connect - Cambodian-US artist Pich Sopheap talks with his German colleague Ernst Altmann.  Available at:

designboom, andrea chin I. (2011). sopheap pich: compound. [online] designboom | architecture & design magazine. Available at:

FCC Collection. (n.d.). Cambodian culture and craft abound at FCC Angkor. Available at:

Guaduauua Bamboo (2013). Guadua Bamboo Harvest and Treatment Process. Available at:

Guggenheim. (2013). Seth Siegelaub’s The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement (French version). Available at:

Hue, E (2018). The Guggenheim’s No Country as Refuge: Sopheap Pich and Bordering on Diversity in the Museum. Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 29(1), pp.29–44. doi:10.1080/10436928.2018.1416253.

Leakthina CO and Winter T (2012) Expressions of Cambodia: the politics of tradition, identity and change. London: Routledge.

M+ (2019). Sopheap Pich Interview: Material as Identification. Available at:

Pich S (2016) ‘Statement of Practice’ The Journal of Modern Craft, 9(2):215-226 doi:10.1080/17496772.2016.1205288.

Taylor N A and Ly B (2012). Modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art: an anthology. Ithaca, N.Y.: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University.

‌‌Rollins, T (2009), The Pulse Within Sopheap Pich, exhibition catalogue, Available at:

Yimsut, R (2011). Facing the Khmer Rouge: a Cambodian journey. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.