Arjay Stevens, the bio-scientist and pharmacist turned independent photographer and researcher, is holding a farewell exhibition titled Look Up – Billboards: Cambodia’s Vanished Art. He is moving back to his native Germany after nearly three decades in the Kingdom.

Stevens visited Cambodia for the first time in 1996 and has been photographing and studying Cambodia’s cultural and artistic heritage ever since.

“It’s a homage to Cambodia and I’m touched by Arjay’s sensitivity and generosity,” said Marina Pok, founder of the Anicca Foundation and curator of the exhibition, which is only display at Aroma Gallery near the National Museum from March 24 - April 8.

The charming and often witty billboards advertise family and local businesses during the Golden Age of Cambodia before the civil war and during the initial decade of recovery in the 1990s.

“These vintage billboards were very popular in the 90s when Cambodia came out from the civil war period. The billboards are the expression of a naive narrative from shop owners to attract the public,” said Pok.

She says the signs are painted with vivid colours after a dark time in Cambodian history and each shop competed to have the best billboard. Now they have disappeared and been replaced by digital signs or advertisements with a more standard format.

In 2005, Stevens held a Phnom Penh exhibition of several works from the thousands of original painted signs he had patiently identified and photographed.

That exhibition, titled Another Image of Cambodia highlighted the era when the visual depiction of professional or commercial endeavours could still be imaginative, not just cold and laser-like descriptions.

Other art and photography historians have been charmed by this popular art form, perpetuated by generations of artists in provincial towns, while the capital city was fast embracing more modern methods for commercial advertising.

Joel Montague collected postcards from Southeast Asia and devoted two exhibitions to the hand-painted cards in California in 2008 and 2012.

In his book Did you see this one? Sign Art in Cambodian Life from Last Word Books in 2005, New Zealand photographer and author Robert Joiner stated that these compositions, usually painted on tin sheets, were “quintessentially Cambodian”.

In 2012, author Sam Roberts, while documenting hand-painted signs in Kratie, referred to Arjay Stevens’ previous research, according to Pok.

Roberts also noted that one of the pioneers of modern Cambodian art, Svay Ken, said that “although [Ken] 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”.

Pok replied that one might object that this caveat applies to any kind of commissioned art, and thus to even the most sublime frescoes by Michelangelo, which were commissioned by the church.

To Stevens’ eyes, the billboards are an expression of “fun pop-art” that perfectly reflect the period and the mood and are something “utterly idiosyncratic” to Cambodia.

“When I recently got a chance to explore Stevens’ old apartment close to Phsar Chas, I discovered hidden treasures like pictures of Aspara Mudra flowers and old Cambodian music CDs, but it was his collection of billboard photography from the 1990s that caught my eye immediately.

“To commemorate this artist’s 26 years worth of contributions and love for Cambodia we decided to organize an exhibition showcasing these vintage images as a true testament to the essence of the renaissance or rebirth of the country,” Pok said.

Pok says Stevens thinks Cambodia has changed a great deal over the past 30 years and it’s time to go back to Germany.

Stevens worked on a large photographic book dealing with the 192 painted panels depicting scenes from the Reamker (the Khmer version of the Ramayana epic) at the Royal Palace’s Silver Pagoda in 2002.

He has also published Apsaras: Heavenly Dancers (Publi Art, 2012) and The Art of Silk (River Books, 2020).

His interest in Khmer classical dance led to an exhibition dedicated to the legendary Royal Ballet dancer Em Theay, whom Stevens called “the grand old lady of royal dance” in 2016.

“This is Stevens’ farewell exhibition and it shouldn’t be missed. Look Up is a homage to Cambodia’s renaissance: 30 images of vintage hand-painted billboards and shop signs captured by Arjay Stevens’ photo lens,” said Pok.

Look Up runs from March 24 to April 8 at Aroma Gallery (opposite the National Museum) in Phnom Penh and was curated by the Anicca Foundation under the patronage of the German ambassador to Cambodia.