On Burlap, Em Riem Paints the Tormented Faces of Tuol Sleng

A man glares, brows furrowed in defiance, the numbers 57 and 1 pinned onto his crumpled shirt. Not far from him, a woman gazes with stoic composure, her infant cradled in her arms; her number is 462.

The monochromatic acrylic paintings on burlap of photographs of Khmer Rouge victims form artist Em Riem’s latest body of work, “Glorious Numbers,” which opens Friday at Chinese House in Phnom Penh.

Untitled paintings in Em Riem's exhibition 'Glorious Numbers' (Aria Danaparamita/The Cambodia Daily)
Untitled paintings in Em Riem’s exhibition ‘Glorious Numbers’ (Aria Danaparamita/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Riem, a painter and designer, reinterpreted photographs of deceased prisoners on display at the Tuol Sleng Museum. Each piece, roughly 100 cm by 130 cm, portrays an individual sketched on coarse burlap using charcoal, then painted with black and white acrylic, with a touch of green to simulate the tone of aged photographs.

The merging of elegant portraiture and rough fabric conveys both the psychological haunting and physical brutality of the murderous regime.

But the collection of 15 paintings—a somber departure from the versatile artist’s last exhibit of vibrant abstracts—was also a personal project.

“Maybe I was 6 years or 7 years old during the Khmer Rouge,” the 43-year-old Mr. Riem said. He and his family fled their hometown in Kandal province to the Battambang countryside, where they survived the regime.

“This is my memory,” he said. “I want to share my experience living in the Khmer Rouge with people, like the new generation or [people from] another country.”

The numbers referred to in the exhibition’s title, Mr. Riem said, remind him of tags on cows set for slaughter, and the Khmer Rouge killed every person portrayed in the exhibition.

Mr. Riem is known for constantly reinventing his style, oscillating between painting, sculpture and furniture design. This time, he used photographs, inspired by American photographer Man Ray. But “Glorious Numbers” is rooted in Cambodia.

“My work is painted on rice bags,” he said. The burlap bags, which Mr. Riem procured from Phnom Penh’s Orrusey market, were sourced from Battambang. “A little bit dirty…some pieces have holes,” Mr. Riem said of the textile.

And yet, like the defiant facial expressions depicted on them, the bags represent resilience.

“It’s natural, raw material,” Mr. Riem said. “It’s strong.”

The artist began exploring the Khmer Rouge as a subject during his studies at Ecole Superieure d’Art et Design de Saint-Etienne in France.

“Everybody knows about the Khmer Rouge,” he said of his international peers, “but why not Cambodian people [talk about] the Khmer Rouge?

“I’m not part of politics—I’m [an] artist,” he said. But in a country where many are afraid to engage in public discourse on sensitive topics, he added, art often expresses the unutterable.

“This is to remind you: You must develop our country, but you must think also about the history,” he said.

“This is Khmer dying. Next is Khmer living.”

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