CPP Officials at Odds Over White Building Mural

As Cambodians continue to de­bate the government’s whitewashing of a street artist’s multistory mural this week, the information minister publicly critiqued the decision on Friday and drew a comparison to the retrograde attitudes of Soviet leaders toward modern art.

The huge turquoise-hued mural depicting a local seamstress with needle in hand was painted on the north wall of Phnom Penh’s White Building earlier this month by American artist Miles MacGregor, known by the handle “El Mac.”

Motorists drive down an alleyway off Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh on Friday. The alley's walls were covered in street art until this week, when they were whitewashed by City Hall. (Olivia Harlow/The Cambodia Daily)
Motorists drive down an alleyway off Norodom Boulevard in Phnom Penh on Friday. The alley’s walls were covered in street art until this week, when they were whitewashed by City Hall. (Olivia Harlow/The Cambodia Daily)

In response to a Facebook post by City Hall spokesman Long Di­manche announcing that the mu­ral would be whitewashed because it had been painted without permission, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith suggested lo­cal government officials would have done better to congratulate Mr. MacGregor on his achievement.

“If we had called him to meet and praise him, this would have been better,” Mr. Kanharith wrote.

In response, Mr. Dimanche wrote: “Yes uncle, we told him al­ready that he might be a really good artist, but the authorities do not allow art like this, including graffiti in Phnom Penh.”

Mr. Kanharith then hit back with a proverb, implying that City Hall could have avoided the tirade of criticism it has faced since the mural was ruined.

“Scatter the firewood before the flames arrive,” the information minister wrote.

“Next time, [Mr. MacGregor] can push for international participation in beautifying Phnom Penh.”

Contacted on Friday for further comment, the information minis­ter appeared to draw an analogy between the government’s whitewashing of street art and the negative effects Nikita Khrushchev—the leader of the Soviet Union be­tween 1958 and 1964—had on art in his country.

“Street art (not graffiti) must have its place in Cambodia,” Mr. Kanha­rith wrote in a Facebook message.

“I remembered the day when Nikita Khrushchev…[visited] the art gallery and expressed his horror of modern painting. For dec­ades Russian people knew nothing about new art because just one man disliked it,” he added.

On Friday, reports also emerged that other graffiti and street art had been painted over in Phnom Penh, including a well-known alleyway off Norodom Boulevard whose walls were covered in vibrant paintings.

Asked about this whitewashing, Mr. Dimanche declined to comment. He also declined to re­spond to Mr. Kanharith’s suggestion that the attitudes of City Hall were comparable to those in So­viet Russia.

Kimchean Koy, a 17-year-old street artist from Phnom Penh, said he had mixed feelings about the removal of graffiti from city walls.

“Part of me thinks if it was there before, why do it now? But at the same time, it’s part of a constant battle. With street art, it’s part of the cycle, like painting and then it being painted over, and then paint­ing it again.”

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