Another book: Carnet de rencontres au Cambodge: au fil des routes…

Sophie Provoost and Sam Roberts pose with their respective books about hand-painted signs in Cambodia

Hand-painted signs from Cambodia are clearly in vogue. This week I learned about the publication of another book on the topic, following Robert Joiner’s in 2005 and my own this month. The new book was launched with an exhibition in Phnom Penh, adding to the one at Java Arts. There’s then the forthcoming exhibition from Joel Montague in Los Angeles, and my own which will open in Phnom Penh in December. These signs are clearly of the moment and perhaps this is to be expected as they become increasingly rare due to their replacement by printed formats.

Cover of the book Carnet de rencontres au Cambodge

‘Carnet de rencontres au Cambodge: au fil des routes…’ is a French language publication from Tuk Tuk Editions and takes a very different approach to the topic compared to mine and Robert Joiner’s books. Authors Sophie & Christian Provoost have lived in Cambodia for ten years and, during that time, have developed a passion for the country’s hand-painted signs. However, unlike me and Robert Joiner, they have taken the time to get to know some of the shop owners whose businesses these signs advertise. These “meetings on the road” are then the focus for the book as they delve into the lives of Cambodia’s many small, independent traders.

Barber Peou Penh and his hand-painted sign

Photo: Sophie & Christian Provoost

I went along to view the exhibition that has launched the book in Phnom Penh and met up with Sophie and Christian to discuss our shared passion and exchange our respective books. It was a fascinating meeting, not least because of the many original signs that they have collected in the course of their research. They told me that at the end of some of their interviews with shop owners they would ask to buy a new sign if they could take the old one for themselves. In most cases they were successful, although at least one leader of a music group refused the request because his sign of 30 years has brought him good luck. In the case of the one below, Sophie’s favourite, they found it lying unused at the back of a shed.

Hand-painted beauty and barber sign from Cambodia

From the collection of Sophie & Christian Provoost

As we flicked through each other’s books we started to notice signs from each with very similar illustrations, a couple of beauty salons and barbers in particular. This is something that I discuss in my book and the current theory is that the people on these signs are often celebrities with their pictures copied from magazines and other easily accessible source materials. This would explain why the same pictures appear on signs from very different parts of the country.

Hanging hand-painted Cambodian signs at Plantation in Phnom Penh

Exhibition at Plantation in Phnom Penh

Sadly the exhibition will only run until 20th November but, as you can see from the picture above, it is packed full of beautiful signs collected during their research. As we talked about acquiring signs Sophie and Christian were keen to point out that their intention in doing so is not to create a market for these signs or to profit from them in the future. Like me they simply have an appreciation for the beauty and craft of the signs and want them as decoration for their home. There is no doubt that they have succeeded in selecting some choice examples, some more of which follow.

The Provoost family and their books about Cambodian hand-painted signs

A family affair

The book has a dedicated website where you can order for worldwide delivery. For those in Cambodia the book is available from all branches of Monument Books. French readers may also be interested in this piece about the book from Le Petit Journal.

Thank you to Sophie, Christian and daughter for taking the time to meet with me and share your work. It really is a meeting of minds and a remarkable coincidence that two books on such a niche topic could be published within a fortnight of each other.

Hand-painted Cambodian sign showing a TV and VCD player

From the collection of Sophie and Christian Provoost

Hand-painted Cambodian sign for a mechanic

From the collection of Sophie & Christian Provoost

Hand-painted Cambodian sign for a mechanic

From the collection of Sophie & Christian Provoost

Hand-painted Cambodian sign advertising a horse barber

From the collection of Sophie & Christian Provoost

Hand-painted Cambodian sign showing traditional musical instruments

From the collection of Sophie & Christian Provoost

Hand-painted Cambodian sign for a caterer

From the collection of Sophie & Christian Provoost

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