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Look Up!

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

An Homage to Cambodia's Renaissance: 30 images of vintage hand-painted billboards and shop signs captured by Arjay Stevens' photo lens.

For years since his first visit to Cambodia in 1996, photographer Arjay Stevens (b. 1945, Bingen, Germany) has explored and captured with equal passion the series of painted panels depicting scenes from the Reamker (the Khmer Ramayana), the celestial Khmer dancers embodying the Apsara in stone or in blood and flesh, and expressions of a more humble yet definitely poetic art form: the often naive, always charming and many times witty billboards advertising family and local businesses during the Golden Age of Cambodia, before the civil war, and during the decade of recovery and restart, the 1990s.

In 2005, Arjay titled the Phnom Penh exhbition of several from the thousands original painted signs he had patiently identified and photographed "Another Image of Cambodia": when visual depiction of professional or commercial endeavors could still be imaginative, not onnly coldly, laser-like descriptive.

Other art and photography historians were to be charmed by this truly popular art form, perpetuated by generations of artists in the provincial towns while the capital city was fastly embracing more modern supports for ccommercial advertising: Joel Montague, after collecting postcards of Indochina, devoted two exhibitions to the hand-painted signs in California (in 2008 and 2012). In his book Did you see this one? Sign Art in Cambodian Life (Last Word Books, 2005), New Zealand photographer and author Robert Joiner stated that these compositions usually on tin plates were "quintessentially Cambodian".

And in 2012, author Sam Roberts, while documenting the Hand-Painted Signs in Kratie, referred to Arjay Stevens' previous research. He also noted that the pioneer of Cambodian Modern Art, Svay Ken, considered that “although he has known many painters who have started their careers by painting advertising signs, the form should not be considered art because it is done for payment and the composition is dictated by the customer”.

One might object that this caveat applies to any kind of commissioned art, and thus to even the most sublime frescoes by Michelangelo. Anyway, in Arjay's eye, this expression of "fun pop-art" perfectly reflected the period and the mood of somethung utterly idiosyncrasic to Cambodia. As notes Marina Pok, the curator of the upcoming exhibition: "When I recently got a chance to explore Arjay's old apartment close to Psa Chas and discovered hidden treasures - pictures of Aspara mudra flowers, music CDs --,it was a collection of billboard photography from 1990s that caught my eye immediately! To commemorate this artist's 26 years’ worth contribution and love for Cambodia we decided to organize an exhibition showcasing these vintage images - a true testament to the essence of renaissance in the country.” This will also be the photographer's farewell art show, since he has decided to settle back in Europe after nearly three decades happily spent in Cambodia.

Look up, March 24, 2023, from 6 pm - Aroma Gallery (opposite National Museum), Phnom Penh. - An exhibition curated by Anicca Foundation, under the patronage of the German Ambassador to Cambodia.

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