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Tuesday, June 24, 2008


I always enjoyed making things even as a very young child,” explains Sasha Constable as she sits in the garden of her parents’ home in the village of Norton-sub-Hamdon, in the English county of Somerset. After leaving school she intended to study painting, but an art foundation course introduced her to sculpture: “I just loved the more tactile, physical side of making sculptures so I specialized in that.”
Sasha, 33, is maintaining a family artistic tradition — she is the great-great-great-granddaughter of the master landscape painter, John Constable (1776-1837). Every generation of the family since has produced at least one artist. “I’ve been surrounded by art; you can’t look around this house without seeing a painting or a drawing or a sculpture,” she says.
Her current project, though, has taken her far away from this quiet village. In July 2003, she and small weapons specialist, Neil Wilford, established the Peace Art Project Cambodia (PAPC) based in the capital, Phnom Penh. “Neil was working for the European Union on a disarmament project and the idea started as a conversation over a couple of beers, discussing the possibility of setting up a program loosely based on the Mozambique ‘Swords to Ploughshares’ scheme.” This project, begun in 1992, offered tools — such as ploughs, sewing machines — to anyone who handed over a weapon following the end of the long-running civil war in Mozambique.
Sasha Constable and Chhay Bunna at the opening of "Elements" at the Java Gallery in Phnom Penh.
Since the end of the decades of armed conflict in 1998, Cambodia has been dealing with a huge amount of weaponry still at large among the general population. Between 1999 and 2004, the government, with the help of the European Union Assistance on Curbing Small Arms in Cambodia, has destroyed 125,000 weapons. Huge bonfires of firearms have publicly displayed Cambodia’s determination to create a weapons-free society.
Some of these weapons, however, have been donated to the PAPC and are sculpted, forged or welded into artworks by student artists. Birds, flowers, even an elephant, are some of their creations.
Sasha’s love affair with Asia began in 1989 before she began a degree course in sculpture at Wimbledon School of Art in London. “I went out to meet a friend in Thailand, who was traveling on a gap year. I spent three months there and really enjoyed it. During the last seven or eight years I’ve returned to Asia many times, in particular Cambodia,” she says. The stone carvings, the sculptures and the culture appealed to her. “I gained inspiration and ideas while traveling, came home and produced a body of work. I would then sell enough pieces to buy a flight back and do the same thing again.” She has exhibited her work, both sculpture and prints, in over 40 exhibitions and held four solo shows.
Sasha has been based in Cambodia since November 2000 when she was appointed Artist in Residence by the World Monuments Fund, a non-profit organization that preserves historic buildings worldwide. This gave her the opportunity to study the Cambodian Temples. “They are amazing, awesome buildings. I never get bored with them, I can still spend whole days out there,” she says, smiling at the recollection.

In May 2003, she and Neil Wilford began talking seriously about the possibility of launching PAPC and drafted a proposal. “I spent the whole of that summer sending it to people, trying to get support. Not an easy job, getting money for an idea, but I was fortunate that many people I met were very supportive. Paddy Ashdown (a former British politician who is now the European Union's Governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina) wrote a covering letter, which I’m sure helped us a lot.” Actresses Emma Thompson and Angelina Jolie and model Stella Tennant are among the list of fund donors.