Under the brutal Khmer Rouge rule from 1975–79, Cambodia’s cities were systematically emptied of their population, commercial activity ground to a halt, and even the use of currency was prohibited. This genocidal reign was finally brought to an end by the occupation of Cambodia by Vietnamese military forces, who instituted a state-controlled economic system that continued to severely limit private economic activity.
Only with the implementation of the United Nations Transitional Authority in 1990 did private commercial activity begin to fully thrive. Remarkably, Cambodia’s re-populated urban environments came alive with hand painted signs advertising myriad small businesses and personal services. Painted on sheets of metal by commercial artists in tiny makeshift studios and storefronts, the signs bore lively representations of everyday goods or services—car parts, foodstuffs, tailored clothing, medical and beauty services, musical performers, and more. Today these signs provide a window into the brief period when private enterprise bloomed but had not yet come under the sway of international business interests and mass-produced advertising.
Massachusetts-based collector Joel Montague amassed a collection of this ephemeral art in the 1990s and has recently donated to the Fowler Museum twenty-two of the twenty-five hand-painted signs on display.
This exhibition is curated by Roy Hamilton, senior curator of Asian and Pacific collections, Fowler Museum.