The great whitewash

December 27, 2015

There’s been a bit of an uproar in Phnom Penh in the last few days, after city authorities painted over a recently-created mural in the centre of town.

The White Building is an iconic 450 metre-long part of the fabric of the city, and is known to everyone who has spent any time here. It was designed as social housing in 1963 by architect Lu Ban Hap, and since then has become ever-more dilapidated, filthy and disreputable. Nevertheless, it is much loved by those who live there: prostitutes, drug dealers, artists, social campaigners, charity workers and working families. It has been hymned by the New York Times, Slate and Salon in recent months, and is widely regarded as a wonderful example of a New Khmer building.

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A couple of weeks ago, an American artist called Miles “El Mac” MacGregor painted a 10-metre green and black portrait on the side of the White Building, of a woman called Moeun Thary, who is a seamstress and resident of the building. The project was paid for by millionaire US artist David Choe, and was wildly popular, and rather beautiful.

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The mural, and Moeun Thary.

But, best laid plans and all that: it turns out that despite asking for municipal permission, and spending some $2,000 on permits, the artist and his team had only got verbal permission before starting work. And if you know Cambodia, you’ll know that that’s not worth the paper it’s written on. So after the mural had been up for about a week, City Hall came along and painted over it. Seamstress Moeun said she was sorry to see the painting go, and said that she thought that the mural showed a woman’s strength in supporting her family.

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It can’t seem to be anything than a giant ‘fuck you’ to artists, women’s rights groups, those working for the poor and underprivileged and those who like to see a more vibrant and colourful city generally. And in a town that is blanketed with huge and garish advertisements for beer and motorcycles featuring half-naked women, it seems petulant, churlish and politically counterproductive.

Artist El Mac had approached the project in the right spirit. “I hope this mural can serve as a respectful tribute to the importance and perseverance of Cambodia’s creative legacy, and possibly, in some small way, offer inspiration for younger Cambodian artists to sustain this legacy,” he said, before the mural’s defacement.

He went on to say: “Since I had the opportunity to paint such a large, visible wall in a place where there are seemingly no other large-scale murals like it, I felt an extra sense of responsibility to paint something beautiful, meaningful, and uplifting.”

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that the authorities have no reason to apologise. “We are the people who obeyed and implemented the rule of law; they painted without permission,” he said. “We cannot say sorry.”

Spokesman Long later declined to comment on another popular mural which the authorities want to remove. Clearly frazzled by having to defend his political masters’ obdurate stupidity, he was quoted as saying: “I am not able to give an answer for this case and I wish to request that journalists stop writing this useless story.”

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One Response to “The great whitewash”

  1. wow. that is really sad. you would think that they would want to encourage the community with art rather than discourage it – although that is very clearly what they did. that’s so unfortunate.

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