It’s been a big year for street art in the public eye. Between the explosion of global festivals celebrating the art form and a plethora of high profile cases around street artists’ rights (see 5Pointz), the debate over who owns public space is being hashed out all around the world. Cambodian artists are doing their part to bring the debate to their country through the Cambodia Urban Art Festival, inaugurated in 2015. Last year’s edition included nine public murals across the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. This year, artistic director and artist Chifumi Tättowiermeister has expanded his efforts. In collaboration with the Institut Français, he has invited 14 artists from Cambodia, France and elsewhere to paint murals all over the city.
The second edition of the Cambodian Urban Art Festival, which took place last month and continues through an exhibition on view at the Institut Français until April 23rd, opened against the backdrop of a heated public debate in the Cambodian capital. In December 2015, local authorities whitewashed a 33-foot aerosol mural painted on Phnom Penh’s White Building by American artist Miles “El Mac” MacGregor. The mural, which was part of artist David Choe’s Igloo Hong project, depicted Moeum Thary, a local seamstress and long-time resident of the historic housing complex. The whitewashing was immediately followed by a public outcry, despite the municipality’s claim that the mural was illegal (the artists say they had permission to paint it). Many took to social media to voice their disapproval, citing the hypocrisy of the municipality for polluting public space with garish advertisements while claiming that the mural’s subject, a local resident, was “not deserving of being on public view” because “it was not in the Khmer tradition” (Phnom Penh City Hall Spokesman Long Dimanche). The municipality’s convoluted explanations were seen by many as the result of the government’s repressive policies against free speech and anything resembling public activism. The Cambodian government, under long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen, has recently come under fire for a slew of human rights violations, including creating a political culture of violence and passing repressive laws that criminalize peaceful dissent.
Despite the hostile political climate and this recent whitewashing, Chifumi claims that the festival is not explicitly political. Instead, he organized it as an event that honors Cambodia’s artistic traditions while giving young artists a platform for their work. To achieve this, Chifumi invited the artists to paint murals away from the street on private walls and inside schools, with the permission of the Ministry of Education. While this move from public to private walls may seem like a big concession, Chifumi understandably expressed a desire to cooperate with the municipality, as all nine murals painted for last year’s festival have since been destroyed.
Of the 14 artists included in this year’s festival, only four are Cambodian, but all of the murals are inspired by aspects of Cambodian culture. Cambodian street art is still very much a nascent scene and most of its first generation are still teenagers. According to British street artist Venk, who has lived in Phnom Penh since the mid-2000s, many of these artists “have yet to find their voice,” making events like this all the more important.
The artists featured in this year’s festival–Daniel ‘Strange the Rabbit’ Ou, Orpov ‘Mike’ Sovivorth, David ‘Davido’ Myers, and Kimchean Koy–reflect the newness of their artistic community. They are all under the age of 21 and learned painting from Youtube. Despite their youth and limited access to a larger street art culture, they have already developed distinctive styles. Collaborators Daniel ‘Strange the Rabbit’ Ou and Orpov ‘Mike’ Sovivorth combine Khmer text and Gothic Latin lettering in unique ideographic tags. David ‘Davido’ Myers creates animals inspired by Cubist geometry, and Kimchean Koy paints in an abstract style that he says confuses locals accustomed to traditional realism. For these young artists, the Cambodia Urban Art Festival provides an invaluable opportunity to interact with a coterie of international veteran street artists. More importantly, it’s a means for them to contribute to their communities. Kimchean Koy said it best in a recent interview with the Khmer Times: “I want to open the eyes of the people to different works of art,” he says, adding that the majority of Cambodians have never set foot in a gallery.
“Street art can be free form and can be for anybody. Art doesn’t have to be in the gallery or private places: if it’s in the public then it’s everywhere.”
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