The Lost Art of Hand-painted Signboards in Cambodia
At Khiri Travel Cambodia we are intrigued by the story behind the unique art form of hand-painted signboards. We want to emphasize the few shops that can still be found in the back alleys of Battambang and Phnom Penh. Here is some history behind the origins and value of hand-painted signboards.
Back in the 1920s and 30s fine artists, trained in the Fine Arts University in Phnom Penh, were employed to paint wall murals in temples. A generation later, in the 1950s, the cinema came to Cambodia and moving pictures became very popular. The temple artists found a new demand for their skills painting advertising signboards for the cinema. The painted advertisements were vivid and colorful and depicted common scenes of popular culture at the time. Even though this art form was not uncommon in other Asian urban centers, in Cambodia the hand-painted signs appeared everywhere from cities to small towns. Those that remain until today are archives of a uniquely Cambodian view of life.
Then came war and displacement in the 1970s. However, the resilient Cambodian people and their dynamic culture re-emerged and the cinemas reopened. The sign makers who survived the turbulent times revived the art form as not only cinema billboards, but also as advertising for festivals, politicians and an explosion of consumer goods. Their styles were fun and diverse—from naïve to sophisticate and a true reflection of Cambodian society and what they consumed.
However, in the 80s and 90s, two developments signaled the beginning of the end of painted signboards. The first was the decline in the popularity of cinemas in favor of television. The cinemas could no longer afford the labor of hand painted signboards. Secondly, the advent of spray paint and more recently electronic printers made modern advertising cheaper and faster.
Sad to say, nowadays the durability and craft of these beautiful paintings has lost its original appeal. However, we still know a few shops on the back alleys of Battambang and Phnom Penh where we can meet artists and their apprentices who still practice this dying art of hand-painted signboards. Despite faded colors and peeling paint, the original pieces still in circulation are now in demand by art collectors.
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