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Past horrors help heal two damaged nations

Art lovers take in the work at a Meta House exhibition.
Art lovers take in the work at a Meta House exhibition. Photo supplied

Past horrors help heal two damaged nations

The German-Cambodian Cultural Centre, better known as the Meta House, is Germany’s “cultural embassy” in Cambodia. Founder Nico Mesterharm says the two nations’ shared “history of violence” is a special bond which has helped him overcome his own sense of shame over Germany’s dark past.

John Clamp

The centre’s founder, Berliner Nico Mesterharm, spoke to John Clamp about how the Meta House program reflects German cultural ideals, and how Germany’s history has dark affinities with that of Cambodia. For him, this shared “history of violence” means that Germany and Cambodia walk side by side on a path of healing and understanding that continues to this day.

Phnom Penh’s Meta House has been one of the city’s key cultural institutions for a decade. Conceived originally as a “salon” and gallery space for artists and film makers, it now hosts movies, documentaries, lectures, and art exhibitions by local and international contributors. At weekends, DJs play tunes to suit a range of musical tastes.

Meta House director Nico Mesterharm in his office at the centre.
Meta House director Nico Mesterharm in his office at the centre. Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon

Nico believes that the Meta House’s core function is to enrich the city’s artistic and intellectual life, as well as to foster debate about the many social issues faced in today’s Cambodia. As well as its selection of hand-picked mainstream movies, the centre screens documentaries made by Cambodian and foreign film makers on subjects ranging from sustainable pepper farming in Kep province to the status of women in the Kingdom.

Artists, writers, film makers, and journalists regularly come to the centre to “show and tell” their latest work, while the air-conditioned bar serves cocktails and snacks to Phnom Penh’s culture vultures.

Nico says that locals aren’t always aware of the Meta House’s official ties to the Goethe Institut, whose aim is to foster understanding of German culture and language in the world. The centre, he says, is responsive to those that do. “We try to implement the Goethe Institut’s policies but we also try to shape them. We ask local people what they want to learn, what they want to know about. So we have a real intercultural dialogue.”

Cambodian artist Kok Leang demonstrating his technique at a Meta House special event.
Cambodian artist Kok Leang demonstrating his technique at a Meta House special event. Photo supplied

Having lived in Phnom Penh for 17 years, Nico has found that his growing understanding of Cambodian culture has given him perspective on his own German roots. It’s also helped him process the feelings of shame he and his compatriots bore over the depredations of the Second World War. At 49, Nico is one generation removed from that conflict, and Nazi genocide and the evils of the Third Reich’s dictatorship were rigorously taught at school.

This brings him to the core of what he believes binds his home nation with his adopted one, despite the geographical and cultural gulf between them. “Cambodia and Germany share a certain history. Both countries have a history of violence. Now, Cambodia has started to work on [healing] that. In Germany, the education of this has been handled in many different ways over a long time.

“When I came here I tried to learn how Cambodia deals with its history, and this gave me perspective on Germany’s. So we have an intercultural dialogue. My generation would not say they were proud to be German. Now, young people [in Germany] do, and maybe that’s good.” The recent right-wing gains in Germany’s national elections concern him, but not unduly. “They only have 13 percent, and I hope they don’t get more.”

Nico Mesterharm, right, with workshop participants at the Meta House.
Nico Mesterharm, right, with workshop participants at the Meta House. Photo supplied

Nico believes his cross-cultural experience has made him more responsive to local tastes, and given him a positive view on twenty-first-century Germany’s “soft power” aims, which consist in promoting democracy, justice, and sustainability. “Now I have made my peace with the German past, though I can still voice criticisms. I’m running this intercultural centre, and at the same time I’m reflecting on my own culture too. I’ve really tried to understand what it means to have a cultural dialogue.”

When he first started his “salon” in his own home in 2007, it was “really do-it-yourself, underground, grassroots, and already with a social mission,” Nico told a Post interviewer earlier this year as he celebrated the centre’s tenth anniversary. That social mission still fires the Berliner’s engine. When I arrived to interview him he was busy organizing a presentation on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

He also makes sure to tell me, with a mischievous smile, that 2018 is the bicentenary of the birth of Karl Marx. “Another great German cultural export. We’ll certainly be doing something on that!”

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