Sunday, 7 September 2008

Vann Nath!

I mentioned Cambodian artist Vann Nath (b. 1946) a couple of posts back and suggested he deserved his own post here. The man's amazing story - timely in its implications - is encapsulated thusly at his own site,

Vann Nath, 63, born in Battambang, Cambodia, is one of seven survivors -- and three still alive today -- of the Khmer Rouge's secret prison known as S-21, where 14,000 men, women and children were interrogated, tortured and executed during the 1975-79 Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. He is one of Cambodia's most prominent artists, and it was this skill that kept him alive at S-21. His life was spared by his jailors so that he could be put to work painting and sculpting portraits of Pol Pot.

In 1979, Vann Nath escaped from S-21 as the Pol Pot regime collapsed under a Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. When the former secret prison was converted to a genocide museum, Vann Nath returned to work there for several years. The craft which saved his life would allow Vann Nath to show the world some of the brutal crimes of the Khmer Rouge. His paintings depicting scenes he witnessed in S-21 hang in the museum today, one of the few public reminders of the regime's brutality.

Nath has since produced a book and assisted with a film on S-21; an excerpt of the later in which Nath confronts former guards and staff is available here.

From "The Killing Fields", a NY Times piece by Sara Colm and Vann Nath, wherein he describes the beginnings of his prison artistry:

...I started to make my first painting -- a large portrait of Pol Pot, 3 meters by 1 1/2 meters. They had me paint in black and white, based on a black-and-white photograph. I told them I had not specialized in black-and-white painting, but they told me to experiment. I tried for five days, but the picture I painted did not come out the same as the photograph. I was worried because they weren't very happy with it. I asked if I could paint in color, natural colors. They agreed and assigned some people to find watercolors. I started to paint a color picture and completed the first one in five days. They were satisfied because they had never had color portraits of Pol Pot like that. I ended up painting eight or nine portraits of Pol Pot, taking about a week to make each painting. In the original photograph I was working from, Pol Pot's face looked smooth and calm. But the feeling in my heart was that he was very savage and evil. I wondered how he could look so pleasant yet treat people so cruelly.

And, from the same piece, on returning to the prison:

I brought my wife to Phnom Penh, where the government had asked me and several other survivors to work in the Museum of Genocide, which had been created on the grounds of the prison. At first it was very hard for me to return to Tuol Sleng. Sometimes I would forget it was a museum, and I felt like I was still an inmate. But after a while it began to feel normal to go everyday. I worked of my free will as a painter there, preparing scenes of life in Tuol Sleng to show Cambodians and visitors from other countries what had happened. From time to time some Cambodian politicians think about closing the museum. But in my opinion it should stay open. More than 10,000 people were killed in that prison. If Tuol Sleng is abandoned or converted to another use, it will mean that the people who died there were sacrificed, that their lives were useless. I want to keep the memory alive so the new generation of Cambodians can understand what happened during that time.

Nath's actual paintings are surprisingly elusive online - and in real life (unless you're in Cambodia).

The S-21 paintings themselves are housed behind glass in the S-21 (Tuol Sleng) Museum and subsequently many of the photographs you'll find of these works online feature glass reflections, flashbulbs, or odd angles. It's rather a shame the museum couldn't themselves release approved prints - even Nath's own site does not feature reproductions of his S-21 paintings.

There are Nath galleries available online here and here, and a very fine series on Nath's art is available here thanks to Andy Brouwer (see also 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11). Finally, an all too brief interview with the man himself.

Aside from the permanent display of his S-21 (Tuol Sleng) paintings at, "the infamous Khmer Rouge detention center in Phnom Penh", Vann Nath's work is also collected at his own gallery, part of the exhibition space at his Kith Eng restaurant (also in Phnom Penh).

From a piece on this gallery by Lyria Eastley:

Ten of Vann Nath's paintings tell the story of his capture, time at Tuol Sleng, and escape from execution. They are arranged around the gallery in chronological order. On the wall opposite the entrance is a photograph taken of Vann Nath upon his entry into Tuol Sleng, emphasising the reality of his experiences...

"It's important to keep all the paintings together as a series," said (Sara Colm, Human Rights Watch), "and the permanent display of these pictures reflects Vann Nath's devotion to history and memory."

The gallery will be a permanent installation at the Kith Eng Restaurant at 33B Street 169. It is open from 6 to 9pm and can only be viewed upon request.

"Anyone who has an interest in knowing about my experiences in the Pol Pot era can come and see," said Vann Nath.

Forgive me, but I can't help wondering: do you look at the paintings before eating or afterwards?

From December 1999's Principal, Khalid Ali Taha:

Vann Nath claims he will never again paint the type of paintings he did about S-21. Public reaction to his new artistic direction doesn't concern him. Vann Nath says that he'll do what makes him happy and doesn't think about what the public wants or thinks of him. He also says that he doesn't care how people remember his work or himself. "I want people to look at the Tuol Sleng paintings and see them as important historically. They documented a time in the history of our nation. If I'm remembered just for those paintings then so be it," said Nath.

I reproduce several 'Tuol Sleng' Vann Nath works below from various of the linked sites. As one would expect given the context, the content is quite graphic.

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