Sin Rithy’s series of large oil paintings entitled “What Were They Thinking?” exhibited at Romeet Gallery came out of the very personal journey he took at the former Khmer Rouge torture center S-21 last year.
Although he grew up decades after the regime, the 22-year-old painter had heard a great deal about the horrors of the Pol Pot era, and he wanted to try to understand what had happened at the time.
So Mr. Rithy made the trip from Battambang City, where he lives, to Phnom Penh to visit, as he said, “the scene of the crime,” which has since been converted into the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
“The minute I arrived at Tuol Sleng, I felt that someone was screaming for help,” he said. “I walked from photo to photo of the victims. I felt them crying. Their expression showed they were scared, frightened and in shock of standing in front of the camera for that photo shoot.”
Prisoners at Tuol Sleng were photographed when they arrived, after being tortured and when they were executed—all for the prison’s meticulous records.
“I could feel in their faces…that they had no hope. They knew they would be killed after being photographed,” Mr. Rithy said.
Choosing the pictures of people who spoke to him the most, he photographed or drew them, then later turned them into large paintings. “After connecting with their profound suffering, I took this into my paintings,” Mr. Rithy said. “Their eyes filled with sorrow, their sad faces and clenched lips were etched into my mind and feelings.”
The outcome is paintings executed with obvious respect for those he portrayed.
In the series, Mr. Rithy brought out the strength and dignity of people who knew they would soon die under torture.
In some paintings, he used bold strokes in reddish brown and dark orange to render their silent despair.
In others, he resorted to black and white, deconstructing their faces that become clusters of dots, an expression of those human beings quietly collapsing.
What prompted Mr. Rithy to paint the victims of S-21, he said, “was not to paint the terrible past, but because it connects to present society…so that people will understand that these images reflect the thousands of faces of grief that may appear whenever people have no option left but death.”
Mr. Rithy graduated in late 2010 from the Phare Ponleu Selpak’s Visual Arts School. The exhibition at Romeet Gallery runs through Aug. 2.