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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - After 10 years, Meta House is still a ‘salon’ of ideas

Artist Kok Leang at a 2008 event at Meta House. Photo supplied
Artist Kok Leang at a 2008 event at Meta House. Photo supplied

After 10 years, Meta House is still a ‘salon’ of ideas

To respond to a shortage of art galleries in the capital, Nicolas Mesterharm opened an arts space in his home. Since, Meta House has become a hub of creative exchange.

The much-loved German Cambodian Cultural Center, better known as Meta House, this weekend celebrates its 10th anniversary, and so Post Weekend sat down with its founder, Nicolaus Mesterharm to talk about the history of the institution.

“Nico” Mesterharm, 49, takes a deep breath when asked to start from the beginning.

He first came to Cambodia in 2000.

“I was a documentary filmmaker [and] all the films were on social issues at that time, ranging from HIV-AIDS to prostitution to poverty. So for the first five years of my career here I was basically learning about the country.”

“I left my German TV colleagues at home,” he said. He surrounded himself with Cambodian media professionals and in 2005 opened a production company and rented out a house opposite Wat Botum in the capital.

“So we moved in there and the place was pretty big for what we needed. We didn’t know what to do with it, we didn’t really want to sublet it and the living room was pretty uncomfortable for a living room because it was long, stretched but it looked a little bit like a gallery and this house had a beautiful rooftop.” Nico says he reflected on how, aside from coffee shops, Cambodian artists lacked exhibition spaces.

“Basically I did something that was sort of common in my hometown, Berlin, [to create] a salon, where on the weekends [we] would gather with friends, friends of friends, and see movies on the rooftop and hang art of friends or friends of friends in our living room downstairs,” he says.

And so in January 2007 Meta House was born. For Mesterharm, it started off as little more than a hobby. “Funding for us was nonexistent, so we just did it.

“We would photocopy announcements and hand them out in restaurants; it was really do-it-yourself, underground, grassroots, however you want to call that and already then with a social mission.”

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Nicolas Mesterharm in his office. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Eventually the operation grew as Mesterharm began to realise that Meta House was becoming a cultural centre. Beyond a gallery, he wanted it to be a place where people interacted and exchanged ideas.

“This is what we hope to keep on doing in the next 10 years,” he said.

By 2009 he had opened talks with the Goethe Institut – Germany’s international cultural and language organisation with offices around the globe – but at first did not get far.

“For people at that time the idea of opening an arts and culture centre in Cambodia was kind of odd,” Mesterharm says. “The [German] embassy staff at first laughed at us. They thought maybe we were a little bit crazy.”

Then, in 2010, Meta House moved to its present location on Sothearos Boulevard. Eventually language classes were introduced and, starting this year, Meta House is formally affiliated with the Goethe Institut, and will technically be renamed the Goethe Center.

“We’re representing the Goethe Institut here, we’re offering language classes that are Goethe Institute approved and they will organise a number of projects with us per year, but the Goethe institute is not paying for my rent, for my salary or the people who work here,” he explains. “That is still something we need to generate.”

Meta House’s 10th anniversary party takes place on Saturday from 6pm until late. It will feature art exhibitions, DJ sets, spoken word, projections, a Cambodian traditional music performance and lots of beer and sausage.

Meta House is located at #37 Sothearos Boulevard.

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