After seven years, Phnom Penh’s iconic German Cambodian Cultural Center – better known as Meta House – is looking to secure its future as a key part of the capital’s cultural landscape.
The diverse arts space and its attached café and bar, which hosts everything from film screenings and debates to workshops, exhibitions and parties, registered as an international NGO late last year, paving the way for more secure funding sources and global arts exchanges.
It also recently signed an MoU with the Ministry of Education and is working on one with the Ministry of Culture.
The point of all this, says founder Nico Mesterharm, who started the centre in his own Phnom Penh home back in 2007 with a borrowed projector and a few plastic chairs, is to “take the project to the next level”.
“In the last seven years we have managed to go from tiny to what it is now,” he told the Post at his office this week, sitting in front of a mammoth bookcase cluttered with hundreds of books on art and history.
“The first few years were trial and error. We had to get to know the cultural scene – the stakeholders, key players, ministries, artists, filmmakers – basically establishing a network.
“So last year, after six years, we decided it was about time to formalise all of it and to take this place to the next level . . . there are still many things we want to do and there are still many things that are needed in the art community.”
Meta House wants to use its new status to help hold more workshops locally, bring in more international artists and possibly even begin sending Cambodian artists abroad.
“But to do that, to be able to apply for funding, we needed a proper structure and this NGO gives us this structure.”
This month, a group of young German tape artists called TAPE THAT – who use ordinary packaging tape to create unique urban artworks – will visit Cambodia in a tour supported by the German Embassy and telecom Smart.
In Phnom Penh and Battambang, the group will create original works using duct tap and give a live performance accompanied by DJs.
Although Meta House today has numerous partnerships and a packed schedule of art events, with its daily film screenings attracting hordes of expats and locals, it was not always that way.
“When I started to work in Cambodia in 2000 as a filmmaker, the international focus was mostly on development aid. At this time if you would go to a big NGO or funder and say we want to do an arts workshop they would say why don’t you just give them rice? Why would you want to do that in a country where people can’t even build a house or send their kids to schools?” Mesterharm says.
“But I always felt that arts and culture are always important and you have to start somewhere.”
The links to Germany at Meta House are both seen and unseen.
The Goethe Institute, the German government’s official overseas cultural centre, hosts language classes there.
But the curation of events and the spirit of Meta House are also meant to reflect Germany’s free ideals.
“I grew up in a place where people could say what they wanted,” Mesterharm says.
But has this liberal approach, through which critical and controversial views are often aired, ever led to trouble with government censors?
According to Mesterharm, the answer is “not really”.
“In the past there have been moments where the government wanted us to explain what we are doing and negotiate what is possible. But honestly all these conversations were mostly very friendly and would have been the same in all these countries surrounding us.”
Only one event – 2009 photo exhibition Miss Land Mine – has ever had to be cancelled because of government opposition. In that case, it was due to a law banning beauty pageants.
“We actually have had a lot of freedom in the past seven years,” Mesterharm says.
The dark histories of Cambodia and Germany also allow for frank discussions about genocide to take place at Meta House. After the Case 002/01 verdict at the Khmer Rouge tribunal in August, a debate about the trial was held at the centre.
“We try to make this connection as much and as intense and as interesting as possible,” he says.
And for Mesterharm, whose grandparents were killed in the Holocaust, this aspect of the Cambodian-German cultural connection is a personal one.
“I consider myself affected by that, so I am in the same position as many other young Cambodians. I have a portion of anger, a portion of hate even though it’s a long time ago and this has made me compassionate for the people in this country.”