The “Vann Nath Tribute” exhibition at Phnom Penh’s Bophana Center was a testimony to the void that this artist left when he died in September 2011. About 40 Cambodian and Western artists have contributed works to honor Vann Nath, who was one of the very few people to survive imprisonment at the Khmer Rouge Torture center Tuol Sleng. He told in paintings what had happened there in the hope of seeing that regime’s leaders prosecuted. Seriously ill when he testified at the trial of Tuol Sleng director Kating Guek Eav, known as Duch , in June 2009, the painter was still able to see him found guilty the following year at the Khme Rouge Tribunal.
The exhibiton consisted of artworks mainly created specifically for the event. This includes Peter Klashorst-Picasso´s painting featuring a double portrait of Vann Nath as he appeared on the snapshot taken at his arrival at Tuol Sleng and as he was in the late 2000s.
Vann Nath´s life was spared at Tuol Sleng because Duch decided to have him paint Pol Pot for publicity purposes. When the Khmer Rouge lost power, Vann Nath painted the scens of torture and killings he had witnessed during his incarceration.
“For over 30 years, Vann Nath was an inspiring, thoughtful witness to a pitch-dark period of Cambodian history”, writes historian David Chandler. “Unlike many survivors of the Khmer Rouge, he was never willing to ‘dig a hole and bury the past’. Instead, the past lived inside him, every day, and he bore witness to it, courageously but with an accessible, compassionate humanity as well.”
“Vann Nath was a survivor”, noted artist Sera. “This said, he did not go around with all his pain on his shoulders. He never complained about his fate. He had left that behind.”
This exhibition is the first of two projects that the Vann Nath’s Circle of Friends intends to conduct this year 2013. Members of the circle are now discussing with museums abroad the possibility of creating an archive and database of Vann Nath’s work to be put at the disposal of writers, researchers and journalists wishing to study his work and publish books or articles about him, he said. The goal is to have his work known for its artistic value in addition to the historical perspective it provides.
Artists Fernando Aceves Humana and Chan Vitharin write: “The testimonial nature of his work together with the rawness of his images are unprecedented in Cambodia’s artistic traditions, making him an essential point of reference in Southeast Asian art.” (Excerpts from “Tribute to a Master”, by Michelle Vachon, The Cambodia Daily, January 2013).
The life and death of Vann Nath
Vann Nath was born in Battambang Province in northwestern Cambodia. The exact date and year of his birth was unknown, but it was common for poor Cambodians born in rural areas not to have a proper birth certificate. He was educated at Wat Sopee pagoda as a child. His parents were separated, and he had two brothers and an older sister. They earned a living by selling a type of Khmer white noodles. They were so poor that Nath had no chance to get a proper education. By the time he was 14 or 15, he was working at factory jobs for less than 0,25 US-Dollar a month.
Nath became interested in painting while he was studying at Wat Sopee pagoda. „I became very attracted to painting when I went into the pagoda and I saw people painting a picture on the side of the wall of a temple.“ Instead of pursuing painting, he served as a monk from the age of 17 to 21. „Every family has a son. One of the sons must go and serve as a monk – it is considered bad for the Cambodian family to not have a son who is a monk“, sayed Vann Nath.
When his sister died, Vann Nath left the monkhood to start working to help support the family. He enrolled in a private painting school in 1965. „School was far from my house, and I couldn’t afford a bicycle. Because our family life was hard, only my mother was working to support the whole family and she became older and older and I had to pay the tuition for the painting school.“ Later, the school allowed Vann Nath to work there in exchange for the tuition fee. After two years, he was able to profit from his own painting work.
Under Khmer Rouge Regime
At the time of his arrest on January 7, 1978, Vann Nath was working in a rice field in his home province of Battambang like many other locals. The Khmer Rouge took him to Wat Kandal, a Buddhist temple used as a detainment center. They told him that he was accused of violating the moral code of the organization of Angkar. He did not understand what that meant.
A week later, he was transferred and deported to a security prison in Phnom Penh. This was known as S-21 by the Khmer Rouge and it was formerly a high school. There, people were interrogated and executed on a daily basis. Towards the fall of the Khmer Rouge and the invasion of the Vietnamese army in 1979, only seven prisoners made out of the prison alive. Vann Nath was one of them.
Vann Nath was a painter and writer whose memoirs and paintings of his experiences in the infamous Tuol Sleng prison are a powerful and poignant testimony to the crimes of the Khmer Rouge. He was an outspoken advocate for justice for victims of the crimes of the Khmer Rouge and this is reflected in his writing. His 1998 memoir A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 Prison, about his experiences at S-21 is the only written account by a survivor of the prison. It has been translated from English into French and Swedish.
Vann Nath was one of Cambodia’smost prominent artists. His life was only spared by his captor, Comrade Duch, so that he could be put to work on painting and sculpting portraits of Pol Pot. He played an important role in helping to revive the arts in Cambodia after decades of war and genocide.
During 2001 and 2002, Vann Nath worked intensively with Cambodian film director Rithy Panh in the preparation of a documentary film entitled S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. Vann Nath was interviewed in the film, in which Panh brought together former prisoners and guards of the former Tuol Sleng prison. Vann Nath confronted and questioned his former torturers in the documentary film. To recognize their work, both Vann Nath and Rithy Panh have been conferred the title of Dr. honoris causa by the University of Paris VIII on May 24, 2011.
Illness and Death
Despite battling long-standing health problems, including chronic kidney disease, Vann Nath continued to paint and write about his experiences under the Pol Pot regime. He suffered from heart attack and went into a coma. He died on 5 September 2011 at the Calmette Hospital in Phnom Penh. He was approximately 66 years old.