Martina and the team at her NGO in Phnom Penh have faced many challenges since establishing their school . The greatest may have been trying to overcome traditional stereotypes such as women who work, whilst encouraging preservation of culture by engaging people in traditional crafts and skills.
In Cambodia, there is a culture that women should do ‘the dainty things’ and as such they are usually discouraged to follow apprenticeships or learn a wider variety of skills. Not being able to pursue skills that require some form of strength or force means they become incredibly dependent on the men in their lives and believe they are incapable of more.
Martina’s NGO saw a trend at their school where women were not enrolling in the courses, and it was harder to get women to complete the courses. It was suspected that this was because silver smithing is seen as a man’s job - it does require some strength and women are discouraged to follow these lessons, these teachings, or these professions.
Despite this, the school has already had women graduates from their silver smithing course. One great example that comes to mind is Saosreymom –a young woman in her early 20s, who has completed and graduated from the silver smithing course. When I asked her how this course had changed things for her she started to cry. She had just recently managed to leave an unbearable situation and now needed to support herself and her daughter alone, without her husband’s help. Since gaining this qualification, she is now working as an assistant teacher at the school, she’s able to make her own way and is earning a decent enough income to support herself and her daughter independently. Although the trade has been seen as a man’s job, there are so many aspects of it that are now so easily navigated by women - the word is spreading!
The school teaches their students every aspect of silver smithing; from the melting and the forming of the silver, to creating the jewellery. They start with pure pallets of silver and they blend them with copper, in the precise amounts to create silver 925. They melt this and then cast it in specialised moulds, cooling it and pulling it through a special machine to get the shape they want to form their piece of jewellery from. The machine compresses the silver and it is pulled through by hand or with pliers, until the desired thickness and length is achieved.
None of the pieces made by the students use any prefabricated silver, it is all made from scratch in house and this is what makes this collection so special. From a solid piece of silver that’s been blended and mixed up, flattened, hammered and thinned out, comes a glossy shiny sheet that can then be cut and transformed into stunning pieces of jewellery, using designs sourced from Martina’s family’s design connections.
When the NGO first started, Martina and her parents invited friends who were designers and famous jewellery designers to come over and inspire the students. Rather than teaching them a specific design, they wanted to teach them how to be creative. In Cambodia, the Pol Pot regime made calculated moves to forbid creativity in its people. Unfortunately, a lot of amazing skills were lost to this and for years afterwards, Cambodians were not taught to be creative.
Today when Cambodians are taught something in the creative arts, such as a painting or a sculpture, they are taught specifically how that particular colour or shape or stroke has to appear. They are not taught why and they are not encouraged to actually try their own approach. Martina and her team recognised this and the Italian artisans that come to teach them work really hard to teach the specific silver smithing skills, whilst inspiring creative motivation and output at the same time.
Along with supporting, educating and engaging local women, the NGO also provides sanitation training, installs access to clean water, provides support to women in prison and has developed various strategies to deal with local children not being able to attend school. Families can now encourage their children to seek education and training as the NGO provides solutions and financial support to minimise the impact of their absence on this community, who are totally dependent on subsistence farming.
To learn more about how this NGO is changing the face of Cambodian creativity, you can read part 1 of their inspiring story here.
Check out the MyPower collection made by the artisans featured in this article.
Until next time
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