Zealous bureaucrats, state censorship or simply crossed wires – it’s hard to untangle the motivations behind the Phnom Penh municipality’s decision to paint over the celebrated spray-can portrait on the side of the White Building.
The 10-metre-high portrait of seamstress and building resident Moeun Thary was painted by Californian artist Miles “El Mac” MacGregor as part of a project called “Igloo Hong” in early December, and vanished overnight on December 16.
City Hall representative Long Dimanche said it was simply a question of incomplete paperwork, and requested that the media stop wasting their time on the story.
But three weeks after the artwork’s removal, it seems that the image of Thary lifting her needle and looking skywards will take more than a rushed paint job to eclipse.
Since the mural was destroyed, it has spawned a host of tributes: local residents, and some further afield, are sharing the image on social media and creating fan art based around El Mac’s design.
Victor Blanco, an art teacher at Limkokwing University and the administrator of the Graffiti Cambodia Facebook page, said it was the first time he had seen his students so taken with a particular image.
“Graffiti has been around for a while, and people who care will notice it,” he said. “But something like this, because of what’s happened, it’s really sparked people’s interest.”
One Phnom Penh-based student, a 24-year-old who asked to be known only by his nickname “Ra”, has printed a copy of the design onto a T-shirt.
He said he had never been interested in street art before, but was moved by the execution of the painting and its message, which he described as “to value Cambodian women”.
“I think it would not have been that famous if it was not removed from the building,” he reflected. “When they removed it, people were getting angry and hateful.”
Neither El Mac, nor graffiti artist David Choe – who spearheaded and funded the trip to Cambodia – have commented directly on the removal of the portrait.
But Choe has compiled a collage of the fan art made in response, which he has regularly shared as a response to adoring comments left by Khmer fans on his Facebook page.
Choe also concluded his lengthy blog post about the group’s trip to Cambodia with a less-than-cryptic comment: “When you silence art, it only gets louder”.
Away from the youth chatter, the mural’s controversy has also gifted Thary a powerful fan in the form of CNRP opposition politician Mu Sochua, who has written publicly about the seamstress in glowing terms: “She IS the thread that binds the family and the nation together,” Sochua wrote on her Facebook account, where she has changed her profile picture to a photograph of the mural.
In an email to Post Weekend, Sochua said she had sent multiple messages to David Choe’s team asking for permission to reproduce the artwork as T-shirts: “A group of concerned friends and I want to go further to honour Mrs Moeun Thary and other female artists who are keeping the dying arts alive. But I need the authorisation to use the original photo,” she explained.
Choe and El Mac have yet to respond to the inquiry, and to requests for comment from Post Weekend.
For her part, Moeun Thary has no reservations about becoming an icon of the White Building. “Young people came to me and asked to print my face on T-shirts,” she reported cheerfully yesterday.
“I am so excited when they talk with me. The next young generation gives more value to women as a mother.”