A newly-painted billboard on Sothearos Blvd gets right to the point. A prostitute, facing a man, holds a box of a well-known brand of condoms in one hand and a little monster in the other. On the side of the box, the man is shown with his healthy wife and child; on the side of the monster, his wife is sick in bed. The headline says: “What do you choose?”
In bold strokes of vivid blue, green and gold, and without even mentioning the disease by name, the illustration warns men that if they don’t take necessary precautions when they visit prostitutes, they may end up infecting their wives with HIV/AIDS.
On one recent morning, the ground in front of the billboard, which is located in an area with a busy prostitution trade, was littered with condom boxes and wrappers. “When men see the billboard, I often hear them say: ‘If we forget condoms, we’ll get AIDS,’” said Chhean Veasna, a 25-year-old housewife and food vendor.
“When my husband goes out, I don’t know whether he goes to prostitutes, but if he caught AIDS, I don’t think he would tell me.”
Nine similar billboards have being put up around Phnom Penh as part of an HIV/AIDS information campaign supported by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the UN Children’s Fund. Eight students from the Faculty of Plastic Arts at the Royal University of Fine Arts have been commissioned to design and paint them, occasionally assisted by students from Batouk and Boeung Trabek secondary schools.
Using wall art to convey information has deep roots in Cambodia’s history, said Fabrice Laurentin, an HIV/AIDS consultant for the UNESCO and UNICEF who coordinates the project. During the Angkor era, Khmer artists carved on the walls of the Bayon temple scenes of daily life and accounts of battles, he said. Buddhist teachings have been spread by paintings covering walls and ceilings of pagodas.
“This art form enables people to say things they would not otherwise talk about,” said Denise Hudon Arsenault, a Canadian artist who served as technical consultant on the project. “It’s especially well-suited to this generation that has a great deal to say.”
Eleven NGOs participated in the project, which started to take shape last October and was completed just days ago, said Laurentin. The challenge was to find ways to illustrate the danger AIDS represents and the precautions to take.
“We had to get some knowledge and then figure out what we would have to explain,” said Ouk Socheatay, a third-year student at the Faculty of Plastic Arts who headed the team of student artists. Meetings were held with each of the 11 NGOs to discuss the issues the posters needed to tackle, then sketches were developed and discussed until agreement was reached on designs.
From an artistic standpoint, it was not easy for the students to create 32-square meter graphics that would be easy to see and grasp from a distance, said Hudon Arsenault. “It was difficult to explain that details or small characters would be lost [when seen from far away],” she said. “The students learned a great deal about perspective during the project.”
The graphics had to make people aware that every person who is sexually active may get the disease and infect others. The billboard on top of a building at Psar Thmei (Central Market) shows a Cambodian woman in traditional costume holding a box of condoms and standing next to a giant from Cambodian tales. ”Anyone can catch AIDS,” says the text.
“The giant represents powerful people who also can get AIDS if they don’t protect themselves,” said Ork Chandavuth, one of the eight artists. “The beautiful woman represents pretty girls, who also can get AIDS.”
The Sothearos Boulelvard billboard was the hardest to paint, said Ouk Socheatay. It was done on the wall of a public building about three meters from the ground, and working on a scaffold proved difficult.
“We are not construction workers. We were nervous.” Ouk Socheatay said. Many nights he slept at the work site. “The equipment was too heavy to be moved, so I had to watch it,” he explained.
Three of the billboards were painted on 4-by-8 meter panels so that they can be moved to different locations. Others were painted directly on walls where they will be seen by the largest possible number of people, said Laurentin.
In some cases, locations were picked to target specific groups. One billboard along Chak Angre Boulevard was painted at the beginning of an alley that borders a secondary school and is used by young women working at a garment factory, said Laurentin.
When the artists were at work, members of the NGO Indravedi Association would ask people on the street to suggest slogans for the billboards. These suggestions were incorporated into the graphics.
The billboards will soon be featured in a color catalogue that will be published in Khmer, French and English, said Laurentin. All the individuals and organizations who participated in the project will be listed in the book.
Cambodia is one of the countries the most affected by AIDS in Asia. At the end of 2000, the National Center for HIV/AIDS at the Ministry of Health estimated that 170,000 people between 15 and 49 years old were infected with HIV.
A study conducted by the center in 2000 showed that about one man in four often doesn’t use condoms with prostitutes. According to the study, married men in rural areas visit prostitutes as often as single men, and tend to use condoms less often than men in urban areas.