Tribute to a Master

The “Vann Nath Tribute” exhibition opening Saturday evening in Phnom Penh is testimony to the void that this quiet man and talented artist left in the country when he passed away in September 2011. 

Around 40 Cambodian and Western artists, writers and researchers have contributed works to honor Vann Nath, who, having become one of the very few people to survive imprisonment at the Khmer Rouge torture center Tuol Sleng, made it his mission to tell 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 Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, in June 2009, the painter was able to see him found guilty the following year at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

The exhibition taking place at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center is held at the initiative of the “Cercle des Amis de Vann Nath,” or Vann Nath’s Circle of Friends, which was formed in 2008 to help the artist pay his medical bills, said Yvon Chalm, an architect and the group’s president.

The exhibition consists 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.

Photographer Jim Mizerski also presents two textured black-and-white portraits of Vann Nath entitled “Victim 1979” and “Witness 2010.”

There also are paintings titled “In Absence” by Ing Phousera, known as Sera, who led with Vann Nath several sessions of the Memory Workshop for young Cambodian artists to help them become aware the country’s recent history so they can reflect it into their work.

John Vink used a similar theme in his photo “The Absence,” taken during the filming of director Rithy Panh’s documentary “Tuol Sleng,” in which Vann Nath featured. The photo shows one of his paintings of the torture center, but not the artist. “I wanted to represent the artist at work, conscientious in his approach, thorough in carrying out his work, and paradoxically, in this quiet and timeless moment in the workshop, I imagine him haunted by his memories, the resurgence of his drama,” Mr. Vink wrote about the photo.

The exhibition also consists of poems and essays written by those who knew Vann Nath, including photographer Vandy Rattana and Rithy Panh, who describes him as a man of peace. The texts are displayed in the exhibition and are being compiled in a catalogue of more than 100 pages that should be released in the coming weeks.

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 scenes of torture and killings he had witnessed during his incarceration.

“Memory and its authentication, its materialization in the form of painting or written memoirs is all the more important for that period because the Khmer Rouge wanted no trace of it to remain,” writes artist Karay in the exhibition. “Vann Nath took it upon himself to fill this void by projecting pieces of memory on the canvas.”

“For over 30 years Vann Nath was an inspiring, thoughtful witness to a pitch-dark period of Cambodian history,” writes historian David Chandler in his text for the exhibition. “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.”

“What I admired about him is that singularity, that focus, that dedication he had to tell his story. I didn’t really know how he felt, but when we went to see him, that’s all he wanted to tell us,” writes Sopheap Pich, who contributed an artwork to the exhibition.

“Vann Nath was a survivor,” noted 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, Mr. Chalm said. Members of the circle are now discussing with museums abroad about 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, he noted.

As artists Fernando Aceves Humana and Chan Vitharin write in their text on the exhibit, “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.”

The exhibition runs through February 12.

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