Authorities in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh have whitewashed a mural painted by an internationally-known artist on the side of one of the city’s most iconic buildings because the project had not received official approval, according to the municipal government.
The mural—designed by California-based artist Miles “El Mac” MacGregor and displayed on the side of the White Building apartment complex known for its community of low-income tenants and artists—was painted over on Wednesday night.
It had portrayed local artisan Moeun Thary, who hand-embroiders traditional Khmer ceremonial garments and is a resident of the White Building. A ring of designs that had framed her portrait came from one of her dresses.
A post on the Phnom Penh Municipality website said the mural had been removed because authorities had never approved an application for permission to paint it.
Long Diamanche, a spokesman for the Phnom Penh municipal government, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the nearly 12-story mural depicting Moeun Thary holding a sewing needle, had also negatively affected the aesthetics of the neighborhood.
“Although [the image was drawn] on a private building, it was facing the public view,” he said.
“So, more or less, it was affecting the public. The public could see it.”
The Phnom Penh Post also quoted Long Diamanche as saying “local authorities [mistakenly] thought the team had permission” to paint the portrait and had allowed it to proceed, but that no one is allowed to put up large murals anywhere in the city.
He said the municipality would take action against other large public paintings as well, without specifying how.
Anger over removal
The decision to paint over the mural drew condemnation from the public on social media, with some posts questioning why the government had allowed ugly advertising campaigns to blight the city while dismissing public art.
Others, including Moeun Thary, expressed frustration, saying the image did not affect social security or carry a political message and should not have been removed.
“When the municipality did that, it was unbelievable—it was just a drawn image,” she told RFA.
“And I am in the arts. When we are promoting the arts, why would they remove it? This really angers me.”
Suon Bun Sak of the local nongovernmental organization Association of Human Rights Protection called the decision to remove the mural “very strange.”
“I don’t think there was a good reason to erase it … it was a way [for the artist] to voice an opinion, even though it was through a picture,” he said.
MacGregor was not immediately available for comment about whether he had received permission for the mural, which he spent about a week painting, or about the removal of his work.
The Phnom Penh Post cited a source who said a “fixer” was dealing with another intermediary who was supposed to have secured the permits and that they had paid about U.S. $2,000 in “fees” to the authorities. The source admitted that they had only received verbal permission to proceed.
In a blog entry posted before the mural was painted over, MacGregor had said the work was meant to honor Cambodia’s artists—both contemporary and those lost during the bloody Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s, which systematically murdered nearly all of the country’s creative population.
“I hope this mural can serve as a respectful tribute to the importance and perseverance of Cambodia's creative legacy, and possibly, in some small way, offer inspiration for younger Cambodian artists to sustain this legacy,” the post said.
The mural was part of a project called “Igloo Hong,” in which a number of international artists spent several weeks in Cambodia painting artwork on walls around Phnom Penh and the nearby coastal province of Kep.
Reported by Vuthy Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.