In even the most finely crafted artworks, there can be a wide gulf between displays of perfect technique and true emotion.
In Cambodia, instruction in the arts typically revolves around the rote memorization of lessons in the classroom and the reproduction of teachers’ works and themes in the studio.
So when Vann Nath and Ing Phousera, two of Cambodia’s internationally renowned artists, recently pressed some of the country’s art students to delve inside themselves, it came as something of a surprise to them.
At first, the monthlong workshop sounded simple enough: Painting and photography students would create using inspiration from historical documents archived at the Audiovisual Resource Center—also called Bophana Center—in Phnom Penh.
But this has not been an easy process, said Ing Phousera, who signs his work “Sera.” At times, he said, “It was even grueling. But one must go through it in order to reach this stage…[which] involves jumping in without fear of being judged.”
“They’ve had to learn that, to express something, it was not enough to get a pencil and draw,” Ing Phousera said. “I wanted them to go beyond [techniques] to become able to express an emotion with a pencil without thinking of form.”
“I learned that to be an artist, a real painter, I must paint from my heart—concentrate on the emotions I feel,” said Nov Cheaneck, a 20-year-old workshop participant studying at the Phare Ponleu Selpak art school near Battambang town.
Emotions poured into an artwork are the best way to communicate its meaning, he said. “We just use our hands to draw pictures, and people can understand the distressing, painful or happy…events of the past or present when they look at those pictures.”
The idea of the workshop was to have two Cambodian artists who had known the Khmer Rouge era and turn their memories of it into artworks to transmit their methods to young artists, said Soko Phay-VakaLis, an associate art professor at the University Paris 8. The workshop, which concludes this weekend, is the first phase of a cooperation project between the Bophana Center and the university, and has included students from the Phare art school, the Royal University of Fine Arts and other young local artists.
Nov Cheaneck said he was struck by the fact that Vann Nath was able to paint the nightmarish scenes of torture and death he had witnessed at the Khmer Rouge torture center of Tuol Sleng.
An inmate at the notorious Phnom Penh prison that only a handful survived, Vann Nath was spared execution when the Khmer Rouge learned of his talents and had him paint portraits of Pol Pot from photographs. He walked out in 1979 with his health so shattered that this workshop was the first he has been able to give, 62-year-old artist said.
“At first, it hurt dreadfully when I was painting scenes of Tuol Sleng that I had seen and lived through,” Vann Nath said. “But the more I painted, the more I could get rid of my pain and my thoughts. And later I discovered that it helped me deal with my memories so that I could remember those experiences clearly and tell people about them in my paintings.”
Ing Phousera’s memories of the Khmer Rouge period include watching his Cambodian father being forced to leave the French Embassy in April 1975, never to be seen again. Then 13 years old, he and his brother, sister and French mother were on the first convoy taking foreigners from the French Embassy to the Thai border later that month. His mother never remarried.
A teacher at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris, Ing Phousera received an author/publisher award in Paris in 2003 for his graphic novel “Impasse et Rouge,” an illustrated look at the last days of fighting prior to the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh.
When it came to selecting the images that the students would use, Vann Nath said he had “suggested to the young artists to photograph or paint scenes of life they have seen, but also to pick the theme they prefer.”
Even though much of their own work has centered on the Khmer Rouge period, the two artists did not intend participants to concentrate on that era. So they were taken aback when they saw that many participants had decided to work on that time of “extreme violence,” as Ing Phousera calls it.
Chea Sereiroth drew himself looking at a skull on the ground, contemplating, he said, whether it could be his own—a remnant, perhaps, of a previous life cut short by the Khmer Rouge. The 17-year-old Phare student also painted a skull with a circle of arrows, to signify the life cycle from birth to death, he explained.
While Chea Sereiroth said he found Vann Nath’s watercolor technique “the most interesting thing” and has modified his own approach because of it, 21-year-old Sao Sreymao of Phare became fascinated with Ing Phousera’s graphic novel concept—which is a long-form comic book, typically with more ambitious subject matter and artwork—and has begun drawing her own. She chose as a topic the refugee camp Site II on the Thai border where she spent the first years of her life.
“This workshop has made me change the way I work,” said 21-year-old Lim Sokchanlina, an economics student and photographer, adding that he has developed a new way of seeing beyond aesthetics.
RUFA student Srun Sopheak came out of it with a new concept of the artist’s role. Their task is to present in their work an era’s history, culture and achievements for future generations to see, the 25-year-old said.
Vann Nath went even further. “We are like mirrors reflecting all issues in our society…. A mirror can show people what they did, whether it is right or wrong. Therefore, anyone can see what is good and what is bad by looking in that mirror,” which hopefully will prompt needed changes.
With this first step finishing up, the project will continue with a second workshop early next year, and exhibitions of the two artists’ and participants’ works in Phnom Penh in April 2009 and in Paris in February 2010.
A documentary film to be shown in Phnom Penh and Paris was also shot during the workshop.
The Cambodia daily