Home is where the paint is.
At least it is in a new gallery by Fani Llaurado and Dina Chhan at the FCC Mansion in Phnom Penh, which opened Thursday evening. Black and white photographs capture Cambodians’ attempts to turn abandoned public spaces—a cinema, a hotel, a cemetery—into private living spaces.
Several photographs are paired with duplicate images. This time, parts are painted with vibrant colors and patterns, giving these stark images a sense of community and a flavor of home. “The people forget which kind of building or place it is, and it just becomes the home,” said Ms. Llaurado, the exhibit’s photographer. “It just becomes a place where they are happy where they live. They don’t care if it’s a church or cemetery —it’s their home.”
Ms. Llaurado discovered the communities living in the buildings and spaces while researching evictions. After the Khmer Rouge abandoned Phnom Penh in 1979, some returning residents found their former homes uninhabitable. They moved into abandoned public spaces.
“Not a lot of people know about these buildings,” she said. “It shows how Cambodian people can make a home from those buildings not ready to be a home.”
The duo visited sites multiple times. While a sense of home was present, they were shocked at living conditions, particularly at the Heam Cheat Cinema. On the main floor, where theatergoers enjoyed movies through the early 1970s, 35 families now live without water or electricity.
Seeing families living in such squalor, as Ms. Llaurado described it, had an impact on her. She said she could not return for nine months.
Ms. Chann selected the photographs to paint and divided each image into two sections—the original photo, and her painting. The mixed media display the complicated emotions of calling “home” a place that was never meant to be inhabited.
“Hopefully people think about what’s happening and what is going on in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge and people leaving their houses. All our work is like despair and hope,” she said.
It’s fitting for the FCC Mansion to hold the display. Located behind the FCC, the colonial era building looks abandoned at first glance, with peeling paint and missing plaster visible around stone pillars and carvings. It too was abandoned under the Khmer Rouge regime, and traded hands several times before recently finding new life as a gallery.