On his way home from work in Siem Reap province several years ago, Riem Monisilong started choking and wheezing from a neighbor’s garbage fire. That was the last straw for the 35-year-old artist, who goes by Silong.
Garbage left on the land “will pollute the land, and if it is burned it will pollute it even more,” he said. “So I decided to make something out of that waste.”
Used multicolor straws and other trash from Phnom Penh’s notorious litter piles, transformed through Silong’s artistic gaze, will decorate an artistic bar and apartment-hotel aimed at attracting Phnom Penh’s tourists and residents.
“I want the world to stop throwing trash inappropriately, learn to recycle, care about the environment, climate change and support artists,” he said, standing next to a tire he transformed into a colorful table.
Silong began his art career painting on canvas in pagodas in Siem Reap, but he gave up the medium in 2007 after a sugarcane churning machine crushed his hand.
He began volunteering with the NGO Khmer Independent Life Team, helping those disabled through landmine accidents to learn skills and obtain employment despite their injuries.
The experience helped him learn how to transform used-yet-sturdy waste into furniture and art.
Silong’s pieces range from giant 3D collage portraits textured with chip wrappers, plant material and his own curly black hair, to multicolored wire sculptures of bees and geckos, woven with painted plastic bendy straws. He collects most of his material from household waste and public spaces where people have littered.
“I grind the materials by myself using traditional pestle and mortar before mixing together,” he said. “It would be nice to have a blending machine, but I cannot afford one right now.”
Silong got his start in Phnom Penh’s art scene through Thida Keo and her business, BackStreet Bar, located in an alley next to the Tonle Bassac Police Station on Sothearos Boulevard. He spent about a month decorating the bar, hanging umbrellas and lights over the narrow alley.
At midnight on Saturday, all the paint-bucket stools were occupied, and a group of young women sang karaoke off a smartphone over several small conversations. Through BackStreet Bar, Silong met Mun Molyan, whose property development business is opening an apartment building for short vacation stays.
Ms. Molyan’s vision for the Molyan Suites Street Art Apartment-Hotel is to create a popular destination among Phnom Penh’s visitors and residents with a mind toward social issues in the city, said Russell Reihl, the business’s CEO.
“The core values for this business are caring for the environment and social responsibility, so she wants to use recycled material as part of that,” Mr. Reihl said.
Mr. Reihl expects the building’s street art theme will be popular among tourists, especially from Europe and the U.S., where people seek out the works of street artists like Banksy and Keith Haring.
In addition to exhibiting Silong’s art in all of the rental rooms and the apartment’s cafe and wine bar, part of the lounge will show off Phnom Penh street artists.
Mr. Reihl said the hotel is looking for other artists’ work to display in the lobby and cafe.
Silong will also offer some of his small and large canvas paintings for sale in the apartment, but for him, the main goal is to get others to consider different possibilities for the trash that litters Phnom Penh’s streets.
“I always ask myself about the purpose of my works: What and whom I am doing this for?” he said. “I want Cambodian people to have a better understanding about waste management and recycling.”