Nguyen Linh Vinh Quoc

Woodcarving has been deeply ingrained in my soul and identity for as long as I can remember. When I was young, I used to follow my father and the village elders to see the artisans carve charnel statues in preparation for the Po Thi funerary rites or decorative patterns for the new rong houses. I began to familiarize myself with these statues and carving patterns. When the artisans took a break, I asked them to give me a chance. I was quite clumsy at first, but once I became acquainted with the chisel, I was able to carve statues and patterns. My father and the elders said that I was a prodigy.

An Ede artisan at work

I’ve since become the village’s primary sculptor, gaining experience with each festival. Today, I’ve been bestowed with the title “Merited Artisan”. I am always more than willing to teach and pass on this craft to anyone interested in woodcarving. However, woodcarving is increasingly becoming a lost art. Our forests are being depleted, and wooden statues are disappearing from our charnel houses. Young people these days are disinterested in the craft as well.”  – Merited Artisan Ksor Hnao, Plei Kep Village, Pleiku City (Gia Lai Province)

Wooden statues have great significance in the spirituality of Central Highlands’ ethnic minority people. These statues express their rustic yet exceptional world views, which are intimately connected to their daily lives. Every statue has a unique and lively expression created from simple tools such as axes, chisels, and knives.

Young Bahnar artisans

The wooden sculptures of the Central Highlands have distinctive qualities since they are not sculpted according to any models, proportions, or norms. They are wholly dependent on each artisan’s talent, ingenuity, and imagination. First, the artist contemplates the log and uses a piece of coal to outline the statue’s rough form. As the artist’s imagination takes flight, the statue slowly emerges with each strong and decisive hand movement.

Central Highlanders divide their statues into two categories: charnel and decorative. Charnel statues must abide by the strict conventions of the village. Upon being felled, the log is brought to the burial site without passing through the village. The artisan then brings his toolbox to the burial site and begins work. Talented village artisans carve statues for families in preparation for the Po thi ceremony. Their gifted hands transform wooden logs of all shapes and sizes into rustic yet diverse forms: a bereaved man hugging his knees; a mother carrying her child on her back; someone pounding rice; someone smoking; and a young drummer. These statues vividly reflect the day-to-day activities of the Central Highlanders. At the same time, they convey the sentiments, good byes, and well wishes of those who remain. Decorative statues are also varied in themes since they can take the form of day-to-day objects, such as a gourd or bronze pot, or domestic animals like peacocks, owls, and dogs. Fern motifs are mostly used for decorating rong houses.

Wooden patterns decorating a Bahnar communal house

Artisan Ahung of Kon Kotu Village in Dak Rova District (Kon Tum Province) told us: “As wood becomes scarce, villages are increasingly abandoning funerary rites to cut costs. As a result,  few artisans still specialize in charnel house statues. I fear that my descendants won’t be able to recognize our traditional statues anymore, so I usually collect driftwood when I go to the field or the river. Then I take a good look at the wood and carve masks from it in my free time. At first, it was just a hobby, but visitors to the village liked the masks so much that they were willing to pay me. I then decided to make more masks for sale because it provides me with extra income and helps keep my ancestors’ traditions alive.”

With rudimentary tools, these artisans are breathing life into inanimate logs and turning them into diverse works of art that vividly reflect the cultural practices of indigenous people in the Central Highlands. We hope that these woodcarving techniques will be passed down to future generations and live on forever.