Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Vann Nath exhibition in Phnom Penh

A series of extraordinary paintings by artist Vann Nath are currently on display at the Bophana Center in Phnom Penh. You must visit the exhibition if you are in the city and the painter himself is often around to show you his artwork. Not only is he an extremely talented artist, he is a humble and gracious man and has time for everyone. Most of the paintings are brand new, painted this year to accompany a couple of older ones, all of which display in vivid detail his time as a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge at their Phnom Penh torture centre, Tuol Sleng. Here is a press report from AFP about the exhibition, which is open until October.

Genocide survivor's paintings offer a dark journey into Cambodia's past - by Seth Meixner

From his arrest in late 1977 to a rescue, of sorts, from certain death, Cambodian artist Vann Nath has meticulously recorded his year spent in the Khmer Rouge's most notorious prison in a series of paintings exhibited for the first time earlier this month. "Transfer - Story of Artist Vann Nath" traces his terrifying descent into the Tuol Sleng security facility, one of the worst hells created by the communist regime which devastated Cambodia in the late 1970s, killing up to two million people. The former high school was converted by the Khmer Rouge into a torture centre through which passed some 16,000 men, women and children who were brutalised for months before being taken to the outskirts of the capital and executed. Only 14 people are known to have survived Tuol Sleng. Like Vann Nath, they had a skill - mechanical or artistic - deemed valuable enough by their jailers to justify keeping them alive. Vann Nath painted portraits of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Using thick brushstrokes to lay down harsh swathes of blues, greens and grays, Vann Nath's 14 new panels, all painted this year, take on a primitive, almost abstract quality, mirroring the surreal world he was thrown into after being arrested by the regime. He is first seen tied to a chair, his elbows wrenched painfully together behind his back and electrical cables snaking along a blood-spotted floor to his metal manacles. Two Khmer Rouge cadres sit at a desk across the room. "I was accused of mobilising a movement against the Revolutionary Policy," he says. "After seven days of being tortured and interrogated I was transported to Phnom Penh with over 30 other prisoners in two trucks." Much of this journey took place at night - sharp shafts of yellow light from the torches of guards minding the bound prisoners cut through the surrounding gloom, painted in heavy swirls of deep blue and black that descends as heavily on the viewer as it does on the doomed men in the trucks. Blindfolded and tied together with ropes around their necks, the prisoners stumble dazed through Tuol Sleng's gate, as Vann Nath takes the viewer through the dehumanising process of being photographed, stripped and shackled together in long rows.

The exhibition stands as a stark reminder that nearly 30 years on, no Khmer Rouge leader has been brought to justice for one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, leaving Cambodians who suffered under the regime to grapple alone with their demons. Mental trauma plagues many; substance abuse and domestic violence are an ugly by-product of decades on unresolved anger and fear. Dredging up this painful subject took its toll on Vann Nath, he says. "It was truly painful because I had to recall these incidents -- I faced difficulties in painting but I had to overcome them," he tells AFP. "If we don't make these paintings, no one will know (what happened). People cannot understand with only words, so we show them pictures also and they can understand some," he adds. Vann Nath says he hopes his paintings will preserve something of the past for a younger generation of Cambodians who know almost nothing of the apocalypse that engulfed the country under the Khmer Rouge. "Nowadays children do not know or understand. They just hear from their parents that to live under the Pol Pot regime was so miserable," he says.

A month after arriving at Tuol Sleng, Vann Nath says he was "just about finished off". Starved and plagued by lice and skin lesions, he and the dozens of others he was shackled to were surviving on a few teaspoons of rice gruel each day."If someone died close to where we were confined, we had to sleep and eat with the body right there," he says. "At the time it seemed as if we didn't have any sense of disgust or revulsion. We just thought the same thing would happen to us later on." But then Vann Nath was abruptly ordered by prison officials to paint portraits of top regime leaders. The final few panels in his series depict this resurrection. Vann Nath has shed his rags and cut his hair. He stands before a large portrait of Pol Pot in an open, airy room. "This gave me a bit more freedom both physically and morally," he says. Vann Nath was still dogged, though, by the fear that he was only alive as long as he was useful to his unpredictable teenage guards. "They were keeping me alive temporarily. Of course, in the future I would also not survive," he says of his thought process at the time. But he did manage to escape in the chaos of Phnom Penh's fall to invading Vietnamese troops, somehow being spared Tuol Sleng's final bloodletting as guards murdered the few remaining prisoners before fleeing the advancing army.

After the Khmer Rouge were pushed from power in 1979, Vann Nath was made famous by his savage depictions of life in Tuol Sleng; a mother being ripped from her screaming child, guards pulling out prisoners' fingernails or shoving them head first into vats of putrid water. A self portrait of Vann Nath shows a gaunt, nearly naked man slumped in a tiny brick cell, his ankle chained to the wall. Vann Nath's work is "a powerful testimony about the crimes of the Khmer Rouge," said Sara Colm, who this month presented the artist with the Human Rights Watch's Hellman/Hammett award for his work. "Through his art Vann Nath has become a very outspoken advocate for victims of the Khmer Rouge." An international court to try former Khmer Rouge leaders has been under way for more than a year, with prosecutors expecting to submit their first cases to investigating judges in the coming weeks. But Pol Pot died in 1998, and concerns are growing that other elderly senior regime leaders who are living freely in Cambodia could die before being put on trial. Vann Nath said his hopes for justice are fading."If we're talking about hope now, I don't hope because it has been nearly 30 years and no one has shown their face to take responsibility for killing Cambodians," he said.
Link: Vann Nath.

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