Artistic Exchange Sees Ancient Technique Return to Cambodia

Outside a classroom at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) this week, students laid down brick tiles and mixed white plaster in preparation to execute a technique that can be traced back to early civilizations—creating frescoes using lime.

The ancient Egyptians and Romans employed lime for both construction and mural paintings, and there is evidence that a tradition of lime frescoes once existed in Cambodia.

Mexican architect Maria Elizabeth Gonzalez teaches students at Phnom Penh's Royal University of Fine Arts how to make frescoes using lime on Monday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Mexican architect Maria Elizabeth Gonzalez teaches students at Phnom Penh’s Royal University of Fine Arts how to make frescoes using lime on Monday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The use of lime is now being re-introduced into Phnom Penh’s realm of fine arts as part of a series of free workshops run by a Mexican artists’ collective, La Buena Impression, or The Good Impression, which is working to promote new artistic techniques in Cambodia.

Mexican architect Maria Elizabeth Gonzalez, who brought 200 liters of lime more than 15,000 km from the Mexican city of Puebla two months ago, described the use of lime as both “millenary and modern.”

“The idea is to bring this technique back,” Ms. Gonzalez said, pointing to lime murals in the Royal Palace, which was built in 1866, as evidence of past use of the material in the country.

Students slathered a thick layer of lime onto brick tiles—recycled from a RUFA building—which they decorated using paints made out of titanium and zinc.

The color is gradually absorbed, and one week later, the lime hardens back into its original state of solid rock with the paint integrated into the mural allowing it to last for years.

Channa Samphors, 23, who is studying painting at the university, said he enjoyed experimenting with a different style of art.

“Even though our countries are far away from each other, people can find the same formula to do frescoes,” he said of the collaboration between Mexican and Cambodian artists.

Although cement replaced lime in construction about 100 years ago, Ms. Gonzalez says that the benefits of lime in terms of price and climate durability have interested some in Cambodia’s construction sector.

“For me it was gratifying when a construction worker came to the university wanting to learn,” she said.

The workshops are the result of an expanding collaboration between Cambodian and Mexican artists, which began in 2011 when four independent Mexican artists shipped a 390-kg etching press to Phnom Penh—the first of its kind in the country—to give local artists a chance to experiment with the technology.

Gradually, the scope of this informal exchange has widened, and has even spawned cooperation between the two countries’ governments for the first time. In February, the Apsara Authority and Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History will hold a joint archaeological conference in Siem Reap City.

Fernando Aceves Humana, a Mexican artist who founded the collective and helped to initiate contact between the two institutions, said it represents “immense potential” for further exchanges.

“We hope it will lead the way to start an academic exchange between countries,” he said. “Coming to Cambodia changed our lives and we would like Cambodian students to visit Mexico.”

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