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Signs of change

Signs of change


Submitted by Arjay Stevens.

C alled "charming and naive" by one enthusiast, and sold as "retrokitsch" by another, the traditional, hand-painted advertising signs that adorn Cambodia's urban streets and rural roadways have for years lodged in the imaginations of Western visitors.

And although many Cambodian artists, such as legendary painter Svay Ken, have little praise for the artwork, a growing fascination for the signs has led to books, reproductions and exhibits held in European capitals. According to German photographer Arjay Stevens, who has held three exhibits of Cambodian signs, visual artists in Berlin were agog.

"I was worried to show it; I was concerned that people wouldn't appreciate it - but the reception was fantastic," said Stevens, who in more than 10 years has collected thousands of sign images. "They said, 'These are so unique - you must show this.' They went crazy about it. The surrealists from universities were very excited because the art is so basic - not primitive, but basic."

New Zealand photographer and author Robert Joiner writes in the introduction to his book Did you see this one? Sign Art in Cambodian Life (Last Word Books, 2005) that "often humorous, always charming, and sometimes quite crude in their execution these signs are quintessentially Cambodian."

French business owner Erwan Chevalier sells reproductions of the signs at his Phnom Penh collectibles store, Sun Dew Designs, for $25 to $35 apiece.

"They are popular because they have a certain retro charm, similar to the 1950s retro kitsch work in the West," Chevalier said. "We use them on bags and also sell them as artwork. The artist takes photos [of the signs] in the countryside and reproduces them. They are quite a different product than what is sold in Cambodia."

The signs literally speak for themselves. They portray a colorful - some might say playful - world of long-lashed beauty queens, ultra-pearly dental work and frolicking farmyard animals.

"These signs are very much a part of Cambodian culture," said Stevens. "This is advertising. Billboards must reach everyone, so they can't be too sophisticated - and mostly they're not. These signs show serious things in a charming way. They show where you can take care of your everyday needs: tools, haircuts, places to repair or wash your motorbike."

Stevens said the compositions are effective as advertising as well as art.

"Psychologically they are very effective," he said. "The position of products and names is correct. A modern designer couldn't do any better. Sometimes they have calligraphy in several different languages. You can see Khmer, Vietnamese, Chinese, English and French."

According to Joiner, the sign-painting style, known as chook tip in Khmer, will soon be a thing of the past as Cambodia embraces the digital age and succumbs to Western advertising models.

"I have attempted to depict a representative range of this naïve art form in order to record, for posterity, something which may not be around for much longer," Joiner writes.

Stevens, whose photography exhibit Billboards: Another Image of Cambodia was shown last year at the FCC in Phnom Penh, agrees the signs will soon disappear and that now is the time to start preservation efforts.

"Only in the old parts of Phnom Penh and in the country are they still used," he said. "You can see the day when they'll be gone because the material and methods are changing so fast. Now it's computer images, painting with air-brush techniques and interpretations of Western images and logos.

An art historian should write about it and analyze it before it's gone."

Cambodian painter Svay Ken, 73, said that although he has known many painters who have started their careers by painting advertising signs, the form should not be considered art because it is done for payment and the composition is dictated by the customer.

Sok Savath, who owns Hang Meas Sign Shop in Kampong Cham, began hand-painting signs as a young man and continues to this day. He was taught the skill by his father, and he in turn has taught it to his son. But he readily admits modernizing his operation in the face of evolving customer demands and business efficiency.

"I plan to change from drawing by hand to using machine printing," Savath told the Post. "The new methods are faster and look more modernized. This is recognized by the public."