At a Glance
Paintings by Vann Nath, opens July 12 at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center, #64 Street 200.
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The decades-long collaboration between two famous artists — filmmaker Rithy Panh and painter Vann Nath — continues with an exhibition of Nath’s work on July 12 at Panh’s Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh.
The three-month exhibit will feature the vivid and shocking artwork of Nath, one of only seven survivors of the infamous Khmer Rouge prison and torture center S-21. His incarceration and close contact with the former prison commander Duch was immortalized in Panh’s 2003 film “S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.” But their friendship started years earlier.
“We’re great friends. It’s an honor for me to have a friend like Vann Nath. I met him in 1991 when I started to make my first film here, ‘Cambodia: Between War and Peace’,” says Panh. “With Vann Nath you have a person who has been through something very dark. He’s a symbol of humanity and resistance.”
The pivotal moment in S-21 is the meeting of Nath and his former captor Hoy. Calmly Nath confronts the former prison official in an unforgettable, heart-wrenching scene that may be one of the most moving in Cambodian cinematic history. Many of Nath’s most affecting paintings capture the cruelty of the regime’s treatment of political prisoners. Nath escaped a similar fate only when it became known that he had skill as a painter.
Today, his paintings and 1998 memoir, A Cambodia Prison Portrait: One Year in Khmer Rouge’s S-21 Prison, are some of the most powerful records of the brutality of the Khmer Rouge regime. In February, Nath received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett Award, an honor bestowed by Human Rights Watch for writers who display courage in the face of political persecution.
“Vann Nath uses his strength to fight against genocide,” says Youk Chang, executive director of the Documentation Center of Cambodia. “His energy and voice represent many voices of the Khmer Rouge victims.”
The as-yet-untitled show at BARC will highlight Nath’s career and his ordeal at Toul Sleng. As such it will be a good fit with the permanent exhibits at BARC, which are designed to “create a space for production and reflection on images and their messages.”
The BARC was opened in December 2006 with funding from the Paris-based National Audiovisual Institute, UNESCO and technology giant Microsoft, among others.
The BARC archive includes films, audio recordings and photographs. Prized items include historic films of Cambodia by the Lumiere brothers in 1899, King Monivong’s coronation in 1928, and an invaluable stockpile of Khmer Rouge propaganda films and broadcasts.
Panh received the 2007 Prix France-Culture career achievement award at the Cannes Film Festival “for the intensity of his work and his commitment to cinemagraphic history.”
The show, Nath’s first official showing since participating in the Visual Arts Open in 2005, comes as the artists faces grave health risks. The 63-year-old Nath suffers from kidney problems and requires twice-weekly dialysis treatment in Phnom Penh and frequent trips to Bangkok. The cost for the treatments is more than $1,000 per month and the price of a new kidney is an estimated $80,000. Nath, who’s family runs a Phnom Penh eatery, relies entirely on donations — mostly from foreigners — to stay alive. He says that the government has never helped him financially, and most of his recent artwork has been sold to pay for medical costs.
Still, his legacy is not lost on Cambodia’s new generation of artists.
“I would say he is the father of contemporary art in Cambodia. The man just oozes artistry,” says prominent contemporary artist Pich Sopheap. “When he walks into a room at an opening you feel the air stop flowing and everybody looks. He is, for me, such an important symbol: of a survivor and also as an artist. There is no mistake when you listen to him talk that he is anything but an artist.”
Pich, director of the contemporary art studio SalaArts, believes Nath is the most important modern Cambodian painter. Pich believes that Nath’s importance as an artist, rather than a potential witness or a famous victim, should be recognized by the government.
“With all those paintings at the Toul Sleng museum , you’d think he deserves some assistance. They will be there forever,” Pich says. “Aesthetically speaking you have to respect his art for its honesty. Honesty comes out in everything that he does. In contemporary art honesty is hard to find these days. That’s his most important lesson.”
The BARC is located in a newly renovated 1960s-era building at #64 Street 200 in Phnom Penh. Entrance for foreigners is $3, Cambodians are admitted for free.