Municipal authorities on Wednesday night whitewashed a multistory mural that had been painted on a wall of Phnom Penh’s dilapidated White Building last week, sparking an outcry on social media as Cambodians shared images of the mural and mocked the decision to destroy it.
The turquoise-hued portrait of Moeun Thary, a building resident respected for her needlework, had graced the north wall of the apartment block since early this month, when it was painted by internationally renowned graffiti artist Miles “El Mac” MacGregor as part of a project to promote public art funded by wealthy backer David Choe.
However, local authorities painted over the mural late Wednesday night, citing the artist’s lack of official permission to paint it—and Ms. Thary’s lack of worthiness as the subject of a piece of public art.
Hun Sarath, one of the two village chiefs for the White Building, said she was ordered to remove the work on Wednesday night.
“We cleaned the picture at about 11 p.m. last night because Phnom Penh City Hall ordered us to do it,” she said.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said authorities had demanded that the mural be whitewashed because Mr. MacGregor never obtained formal permission to paint it.
“They applied for a permission letter, but City Hall had not yet replied…and they painted without permission,” he said.
The spokesman added that City Hall considered the subject of the mural to be problematic, and that the artist would not have received authorization to depict Ms. Thary in any case.
“We would not have allowed those people to paint this picture because the painting’s subject is not deserving of being on public view. This picture was not in the Khmer tradition,” he said.
In her apartment on the top floor of the White Building on Thursday morning, Ms. Thary was visibly shocked to hear that her portrait had been erased.
“I am not happy to hear what happened to the painting,” she said.
“It was not done out of personal interest, but it represents Khmer culture, and I had hoped it would help to promote Khmer culture,” she said.
However, a shopkeeper selling drinks directly beneath the former site of the mural, who declined to give her name, said many locals initially complained about the painting, but stopped upon being told that the project had City Hall’s blessing.
She was also critical of the mural’s subject.
“I think that the picture is not good for painting on the wall because [Ms. Thary] is not a famous woman. They should have painted a picture of a Khmer hero,” she said.
Others disagreed. Sophea Roat, an English teacher at a community school in the White Building, said she would miss the mural’s vibrant colors. “I really liked the painting. It was nice to see a local person being used for art like this, and it made a pleasant change from the white and black colors of the rest of this building,” she said.
Sorn, 12, and Raksmey, 9, young residents of the White Building who were walking by the former site of the mural on their way home from school on Thursday, said they had liked it, too.
“I liked the big friendly face on the wall. I haven’t seen art so big before,” said Reaksmey.
“I was really sad to see it had gone this morning,” San added.
Cambodians also took to Facebook in droves on Thursday to voice their opinion on the whitewashing, with most users deriding the government’s decision to blank out the mural. Some drew attention to the fact that the capital is plastered with beer advertisements and neon signs, and an image of the mural with a glass of Cambodia Beer photoshopped into Ms. Thary’s hand was shared widely.
“It called urban art! It is much better than beer, cigarettes ads banner. It is nothing wrong with wall painting there,” a Facebook user named Oum Sothea wrote on City Hall’s Facebook page.
“May the municipal officials reconsider about this. It is a beautiful masterpiece of art. It expresses a lot of meanings. To my own perspective, this painting gives value to women, especially to all mothers,” wrote another, Puth Reaksmey.
Neither MacGregor nor Mr. Choe responded to requests for comment on Thursday, but in a post on his blog dated Wednesday, Mr. MacGregor wrote that the project was an effort to create something “beautiful, meaningful, and uplifting.”
“I hope this mural can serve as a respectful tribute to the importance and perseverance of Cambodia’s creative legacy, and possibly, in some small way, offer inspiration for younger Cambodian artists to sustain this legacy,” he wrote.