This story originally appeared in UCLA Today, a discontinued publication.

Signs of the times in Cambodia

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From the Fowler's new collection of Cambodian shop signs handpainted on metal by  "worker-artists" in the 1990s.
An ephemeral episode in Cambodian history — the resurgence in the 1990s of small businesses after Khmer Rouge brutalities and Vietnamese military occupation, and before international business interests took hold — comes to life in a new exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.
 
"Cambodian Shop Signs," a recent acquisition in the museum’s extensive and revealing collection of cultural artwork, features 25 handmade advertising signs that are both "interesting popular art and at the same time reveal the history and culture of Cambodia," according to Roy Hamilton, curator of Asian and Pacific Colonies at the Fowler.
 
Painted on sheets of metal by "worker artists" in tiny, makeshift studios and storefronts, the colorful, animated advertisements represented everyday goods and services — car parts, foodstuffs, tailored clothing, musical performers, and unusual beauty and healing regimens such as "cupping" or "coining" by rubbing a hot cup or coin onto the skin in order to stimulate the nervous system. The signs provide a window into the brief period when private enterprise bloomed but had not yet come under the sway of global commercialism and mass-produced advertising.
 
The Fowler Museum has received 22 works of the 25-piece collection as a permanent gift from Joel Montague, a Massachusetts-based collector who had been in contact with the Fowler’s Hamilton for several years regarding the Cambodian artwork. A public health officer who lived in Cambodia for several years and continues to serve on the board of a Cambodian nonprofit dedicated to eradicating malaria, Montague witnessed the worker artists firsthand in the 1990s, when he began to collect the beautifully made signs. The Fowler’s reputation as supporter and steward of popular and commercial art from around the world prompted Montague’s donation of a collection that can now serve researchers in fields such as art and history as well as being enjoyed by museum visitors.
 
"Cambodian Shop Signs" closes on March 31, 2013, when the three pieces that belong to Montague will be returned to him, and the remaining 22 will remain on display in the Fowler and Focus Gallery of the museum's recent acquisitions.
 
Find more information at this Fowler Museum website. Admission to the museum is free, but there is a fee for parking.
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