Tribute to Vann Nath, Phnom Penh

P1120177 (Large)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.
P1120175 (Large)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.
P1120191 (Medium)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.”
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“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.
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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).
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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.
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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.
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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.

Artist Career

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.
P1120192 (Medium)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.
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National Museum, Phnom Penh

P1120258 (Large)The National Museum of Cambodia is home to the world’s finest collection of Khmer sculpture. Some highlights include the eight-armed statue of Vishnu from the 6th or 7th century AD, the statue of Shiva and the sublime statue of Jayavarman VII seated, his head bowed slightly in a meditative pose. There is a permanent collection of post-Angkorian Buddhas, many of which were rescued from Angkor Wat when the civil war erupted.
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The foundation stone for the new museum was laid in August 1917 and it was inaugurated in 1920. The museum closed between 1975 and 1979, the years of Khmer Rouge control and re-opened on 13 April 1979.
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The Angkor Wat style (1100-1175) presents the highest achievements in architecture and ornamentation of buildings and bas-reliefs. Besides the world famous Angkor Wat temple, Phimai temple (in Thailand) was also constructed during this period. Sculpted figures are upright, muscular and formal, and are prominently adorned with ornate belts and jeweled necklaces and bracelets.
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Recent archaeological excavations at Angkor Borei (in southern Cambodia) have recovered a large number of ceramics, some of which probably date back to the prehistoric period. Most of the pottery, however, dates to the pre-Angkorian period and consists mainly of pinkish terracotta pots which were either hand-made or thrown on a wheel, and then decorated with incised patterns.
P1120247 (Medium)In post-Angkorian wood sculpture, artists began applying one or two layers of lacquer which played a decorative as well as protective role. Also during this period, artists developed the technique of decorating wood figures with encrusted ornaments – frequently using ivory, mother-of-pearl, or vitrified lead inlays. Most of the wooden statues in the museum’s collection were carved in the last few centuries. One can see varied influences in many of the post-Angkorian works of art.
P1120244 (Medium)The Museum believes that Cambodia’s cultural heritage is of great value and can provide a source of pride and identity to the Cambodian people who have lost so much in recent decades.
P1120248 (Medium) P1120236 (Medium)By the way: Some bat experts claim that the National Museum has the largest bat population of any artificial structure in the world. It was considered ecologically unsound to remove the bats, so a second artificial ceiling was constructed, by help of the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau (Aidab) to stop the droppings falling through.

Michael, Lost Art, Kampot

I meet Michael at his bar/restaurant “Lost Art” in Kampot, South Cambodia. Striking are the framed pictures of famous Cambodian singers of the 60s at the walls. The English man from Leeds came to Cambodia in 2005. He was always into British and American songs from the 1960s and 70s. In Cambodia he came in touch with traditional music from that time. He felt in love with it and dedicated his bar to those singers, who lost their lives due to the Khmer Rouge.

P1120439 (Large)During the 1960s a thriving pop music scene flourished in Phnom Penh that blended elements of Khmer traditional music with the sounds of rhythm and blues and Rock and Roll to make a Westernized sound akin to psychedelic or garage rock. The Cambodian Rock’n Roll scene ended on April 17, 1975, the day the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh. Nearly all the singers of the 60s and 70s did not survive the massacres. But the Khmer Rouge failed to silence them – their powerful voices live on, a priceless treasure to Cambodia and to the world that will last forever.

“When I listened the Cambodian songs for the first time, I liked them so much that I dedicated my restaurant to them.”

P1120499 (Large)P1120434 (Medium)Pan Ron (N/A-N/A)

Pan Ron would have been the 1st lady of Khmer music in the 60s and early 70s if it had not been for the magic of Ros Sereysothea. Little is known about her life, what we know of her comes from her music, a delightful mix of the playful and the soulful. During her life she created a great treasure – hundreds of songs, many of which she both wrote and performed. Tragically, her career and life was cut short; she is not known to have survived the Khmer Rouge years. Pan Ron was the second most famous and popular female singer in Cambodia. She had some success in the early 60s, but her career really took off when she began recording with Sinn Sisamouth in 1966. After that, she had many hits, sometimes singing alone, but often paired with Sisamouth, Meas Samon, Ros Sereysothea, or some of the other stars of the era. Most likely she died in the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge.

P1120497 (Medium)Sinn Sisamouth (The Elvis of Cambodia)
(1932 – 1975)

Sinn Sisamouth is, without question, the most famous and beloved Cambodian singer of all time. A brilliant singer and composer, “the Emperor of Khmer music”, has had a greater influence, and has touched more hearts, than any other singer in the country’s history. Though he was tragically taken from this world, his soul, spirit, and emotions are echoed in the legacy of songs he had bequeathed to us, and for this reason, his life is eternal. He was taken to the Killing Fields and before the soldiers of the Khmer Rouge murdered him he asked for a last wish, singing a song. After that, they killed him without mercy.

P1120430 (Medium)Ros Sereysothea
(1948 – 1977)

Ros Sereysothea was the greatest Cambodian female singer that ever lived. She had a powerful and electrifying voice with a haunting, bell-like quality that resonates in the ears and in the soul. Sothea was a tiny woman, standing only five feet tall, but she had a voice like an amplifier and she rarely needed a microphone. During her extraordinary career she performed thousands of wonderful songs in almost every imaginable genre. Unfortunately, we know little of her life story except through the beautiful music that we know tells us that her life was filled with heartache and that it ended in tragedy. She was a victim, like so many others during those years, but her golden voice lives on. Supposedly she got sent to a forced labour camp and then to the killing fields.

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Pan Ron:

Sinn Sisamouth:

Ros Sereysothea:

Quelle: YouTube

Sammaki Gallery, Battambang: Sokhom Roeun and Bo Rithy

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Batttambang is home to more artists than any other Cambodian city. The Sammaki Gallery in Battambang is the leading place for exhibitions. 

I meet Sokhom Roeun and Bo Rithy, two young Cambodian artists, during the presentation of their work at the gallery.

P1120040 (Medium)Sokhom Roeun was born in Battambang in 1987 and graduated from Phare Ponleu Selpak Visual Arts school in 2007. In 2013 he started the Battambang Arts Studio with his fellow Bo Rithy. Sokhom Roeun has exhibited in Thailand, France and Japan as well as further exhibitions in Cambodia. With his art, Sokhom wants his audience to understand about who he really is and what he thinks and feels about life and the world.
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He shows a salt and sugar installation.
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Salt represents bad persons and a strong taste. Sugar represents good persons, who are nice and beautiful.” He explains his installation with upside down dishes. “Culture and things are changing. People use things until they break. Some of the dishes have Cambodian design. My purpose is to show our culture which we are losing more and more day by day.”

P1120062 (Medium)Bo Rithy was born 1989 in the southern region of Kampuchea Krom near the Vietnamese border. In 2001 he moved to Battambang and in 2010 he got his diploma from the same art school like Sokhom Roeun and Mao Soviet. As mentioned above he started in 2012 the Battambang Arts Studio together with Sokhom Roeun. Rithy has exhibited in France and Thailand. He experiments with different styles and techniques and tries to capture the transition of his culture from traditional to modern.
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Now I want to focus in installations. Before I did paintings on canvas. I need some change for a while.”

Phin Sophorn, Artist, Battambang

P1110992 (Large)Phin, wife of Mao Soviet, studied at the same school Phare Ponleu Selpak. She graduated in 2011 and since then she specializes in paintings. Her art focusses on women issues.

“I want to express the lives of women. In Cambodia they face many problems. They are busy with house work and family caring, but at the same time they are afraid to express themselves. Since they study normally lesser than men they don’t feel equal. I like to give women a voice by my art. And I like to remind women of their culture and where they come from. They should not forget about it. The orientation towards Western values is nowadays very strong in our society.”
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Mao Soviet, Artist, Battambang

The Cambodian city of Battambang is reinventing itself after disappearing for a while in the darkness and blood shed of civil war. Old Battambang had a great tradition of art. Nowadays however, modern development is turning the city into a haphazard mess of poorly designed, garishly colored buildings. Beautiful old houses are knocked down, the streets are dirty and people seem to care more about themselves than their town and culture.

Mao Soviet, 32 years, and his wife Phin, 29 years, have the hope, that people will come to their senses, the great architecture will return and Battambang’s many artists will be able to transform the town into the jewel in Cambodias crown. Mao and Phin are two of the artists of Battambang. I meet them in their gallery Make Maek in the center of the city.
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In 1996 I started learning at Phare Ponleu Selpak, an artistic school at Battambang. After graduation in 2002 I had the feeling that I don`t know anything. I continued with my school education for 2 more years. After I worked as a freelance graphic designer until 2006. I decided to stop drawing because my style has been similar to my teacher’ s style. I didn’t like to draw like him. In 2010 I changed to sculpture work and in 2012 I added big and small installations to my art work. Now I am happy, I guess I found my style.”

P1110995 (Medium)Mao Soviet had exhibitions in the Phillippines, Singapore, France and the latest one in Hong Kong.

In the future I just want to be a free artist. I would like to see Battambang, my city, as the leading artist city in Cambodia.”
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John McDermott, Photographer, Siem Reap

001 (Large)Some art lovers call him Ansel Adams of Angkor. John McDermott is an US-photographer and lives in Siem Reap, Cambodia. There is a moment at Angkor, the vast complex of ancient temples in the Cambodian jungle, that every visitor hopes for. Maybe it is the moment at sunrise when the ruins have that kind of magic light or when you meet a centuries old tree, growing straight from a stone and slowly devouring a temple. These are moments, John McDermott captures with his camera.

P1110856 (Large)P1110871 (Medium)I meet him at his gallery at the Raffles. He owns three in Siem Reap. John moved to Asia in 1993 as a photographer for a Bangkok based magazine, covering business and lifestyle. End of the 1990s, when the economy collapsed, he lost his job. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, he went back to the US, spent some time in Indiana. The longing for Asia remained. In 2000 he came back to Indochina, to the ruins of Angkor. “Angkor I visited the first time in 1995 for the total solar eclipse. Then it was completely different”, says the 57 year old artist. Indeed during the total solar eclipse he created one of his best fotos. As his special technique he uses infrared film.P1110862 (Large)“My first exhibiton was in 2000 at the Raffles Hotel. All pictures were sold. “Lots of tourists come, the temples are changing, they will never be the same. I took as many pictures as possible. I decided to take portraits of the temples and spent there 6 months for photographing them in my particular style. It means, I wanted my pictures to be timeless, no tourists, no baseball caps, no motorbikes. I want to capture the moments of one year ago, of 10 years ago, of 100 years ago. I never gave orders to take pictures. I only took pictures of people in traditional clothes, no T-Shirts, no jeans.”

P1110855 (Large)P1110865 (Large)He knows that the temples changed physically, because of the ongoing restoration. “The experience of being in the temples is different than before. Sometimes it is so depressing to see them now. Big tour groups are there every day. For example, I cannot make the temple of Ta Prohm looking better than before, so I have to search for other places. The one I am spending the most time in it is Preah Khan, which is not overrun by tourists yet. “ He explaines the atmosphere there like 100 years ago. He admit that he goes now to more isolated places to find the real beauty of the temples. “Without tour busses!” John works with analog and digital photography. “I have a traditional and a digital dark room, a computer with a printer.

P1110863 (Large)He is living in Siem Reap for over 10 years. He continues travelling around Asia. He takes pictures in Bali, Kathmandu, Burma, of course. “I have a big collection of pictures from Burma, especially of Pagan as a magical place. There is just so much to do there. Otherwise – there is Laos around the corner, and China. So little has been explored there by photographers.”

P1110867 (Large)John opened his latest gallery at the Raffles in September 2012, just some months ago. “It is the nicest place in Siem Reap for my art and, by the way, I had my first exhibition here in the year 2000.“ Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor was built in 1929. “The hotel has history.” John’s clients are worldwide, art collectors buy his pictures. “Except Asians. They don’t understand the value of black and white photography. They think more of snap-shots in front of the temples.”

McDermott’s pictures are not just beautiful but iconic … dreamlike photos, which look as though they were taken in an ancient, forgotten world.”
The New York Times

His work has been exhibited internationally, and is held in museum and private collections worldwide, including works on permanent display in The National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. His photographs have been published in The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Newsweek, Time, Travel + Leisure and Archaeology Magazine.

“Becoming a photographer just happened to me. I was always around cameras, I was comfortable with them. I studied psychology, I just wanted to finish my degree. When I left university about 35 years ago a friend of mine worked as a photographer. He awaked my interest in taking pictures. It was a great way to meet girls, to see the world. It was just a great thing.” John got a job in Little Rock at a magazine. “I was learning by doing. I loved taking pictures and I could make my living out of it. I haven’t stopped.” Before going to Asia, John worked 4 years in the feature film industry in Hollywood a a camera and lighting technician.

“I am a pictorialist at heart, the photographic equivalent of an impressionist painter.”
John McDermott

Infrared Film

By John McDermott

Infrared film has a much broader range of sensitivity to light than standard films, and records light waves that fall below the visible spectrum for the human eye. The resulting images seem at once familiar and dreamlike – skies deepen in tone, while vegetation glows softly. Unlike other films, infrared film does not have an anti-halation layer, which keeps light from spreading beyond the point where it strikes the film. As a result, areas of intense light seem to glow.

The human eye can see light only in the wavelength range of 400 nanometers (nm) (deep violet) to 700 nm (deep red). Light wavelength shorter than 400 nm are referred to as ultraviolet, and those longer than 700 nm are infrared. A filter is placed on the camera to allow only the infrared wavelengths to pass through. When the film records a scene using this light, the image is rendered in different grey tones from those of standard films.

Skies appear dark because there is little infrared radiation reflected in the atmosphere. Vegetation appears unusually light because chlorophyll and other pigments in greenery are transparent to infrared radiation. Therefore, infrared light waves pass through the outer layers of leaves and scatter inside the inner layers. Air fills the space between the cells in the inner layers, and light bounces around within these airy spaces. This is what causes the leaf to appear lighter, just as soft, newly fallen snow appears lighter than hard, compacted snow. It appears as if the leaf is glowing from the inside.

These effects mixed with the inherent grainy quality of the film itself lend a dreamy, impressionistic quality to the images, which sometimes appear almost like etchings or charcoal drawings from another era.