Ministry of Culture officials on Thursday said they plan to refuse permission for a controversial painting to be exhibited in Canada in what the officials say is a mix-up but the artist calls an attempt to silence political dissent.
The painting, “Economic Government,” was picked by Canadian judges to be exhibited in the Jeux de Francophonie, a traveling exhibition to tour Canada next month.
But Eng Si Yonda, director of the Fine Arts Department, said the artist, Khem Chantha, shouldn’t have been selected in the first place because he is over 35 and doesn’t meet the exhibitors’ age requirements.
He acknowledged that a ministry letter to festival organizers last December cited Khem Chantha’s age as 35, but said it was a mistake.
Khem Chantha says he is 35.
Eng Si Yonda added that the painting, which depicts a family of beggars cowering near a government Land Cruiser, is unsuitable for exhibition abroad.
“This painting cannot be allowed to go to Canada,” he said. “What would happen if he goes to Canada and starts painting Hun Sen [making a Nazi salute] like Hitler?
“The exhibition should show that Cambodia is very proud of its culture, and that it will build the country,” he said, noting that another Khem Chantha painting selected for the show, depicting girls being instructed in traditional Khmer dancing, would be more suitable.
A letter addressed to the show’s organizers formally withdrawing Khem Chantha from the exhibition awaited the signature of Minister of Culture Princess Bopha Devi on Thursday, said Ouk Lay, director of international relations at the ministry. The Princess could not be reached for comment, but a secretary said she had not yet seen the document.
The decision follows a drawn-out wrangle over the painting between the show’s Canadian organizers, the ministry and Khem Chantha.
“[Eng Si] Yonda is afraid his boss will kick his butt because of that painting,” Khem Chantha said.
When the painting was first selected for exhibition last year, Ministry of Culture officials erroneously attributed it to another artist, Venn Savat. They later corrected the mistake in writing.
Eng Si Yonda, however, said it would be unfair to send Khem Chantha to Canada when Venn Savat was expecting to go.
“No painter will go to Canada,” he said.
Khem Chantha said he suspects the mix-up was staged in order to try to stop him from participating in the exhibition.
The same painting was rejected from a Ministry of Culture show last December on the grounds that it was unsuitable for an exhibition meant to “promote development,” Eng Si Yonda said.
Eng Si Yonda, who is himself an artist, said it’s not the government’s job to promote art that is critical of the status quo.
“In the Lon Nol regime, I was a specialist in this kind of [political] painting, and people tried to arrest me,” Eng Si Yonda said. “I wanted Cambodia to be good; I wanted democracy.
“But now our culture has gone down, so we need to rehabilitate it and rebuild the spirit of the people.”