Tith Veasna says her art has cathartic value for Cambodians struggling to confront a horrifying past. Her work Pineapple Eyes (above) represents the constant surveillance and paranoia of society under the Khmer Rouge.
Lyna Kan was 18 when the Khmer Rouge evacuated Phnom Penh and her life changed forever. Now, almost 33 years later, her daughters are using art as a way to embody Kan’s experience of this dark period in Cambodian history.
Tith Kanitha’s installation of colorful balloons floating above a Cambodian flag outlined on the floor in chains symbolizes the world her mother was a part of.
“The strings holding the balloons to the ground are like the commanders in the Khmer Rouge,” says Kanitha, 20. “The balloons are the people. They couldn’t escape.”
Kanitha’s Prison without a Gate was one of 35 pieces by 20 artists on display at the recent Art of Survival show at Meta House in Phnom Penh. The show focused on Cambodian and foreign work expressing scenes from the Khmer Rouge period.
For Kanitha, art is an important tool for coming to terms with a brutal past that has more commonly been suppressed than confronted.
“It is a problem for the young Cambodians to try and write down what happened in the past. There was too much suffering,” she says.
Her older sister, Tith Veasna, 24, agrees. “There is a lot art can do. It can show history and religion. It can help people understand,” Veasna says.
“They were live witnesses to what happened. … I can’t imagine what it would have felt like to have no freedom and be watched all the time.”
One of Veasna’s pieces, Pineapple Eyes, seeks to capture the culture of spying and surveillance during the Khmer Rouge era through clusters of eyeglasses suspended in mobile form from the ceiling.
Veasna’s other piece showcased at Meta House, Blind Pins, was a canvas of black cloth pieces attached with pins, representing mourning.
“In our society, when a relative dies, after you have celebrated their death, you wear a white shirt with a black cloth pinned to it.
“Everyone was mourning during the Khmer Rouge period but they could not show sadness,” she explains.
Both sisters found inspiration for their art from listening to their parents and grandparents talk about life under the Khmer Rouge.
For Lyna Kan, their mother, art opens the door to greater self-awareness. “Without art in teaching, children don’t understand,” she says. “Cambodia is awaking from a sleep. Art is important to our understanding of the past.”
Lydia Parusol, art manager at Meta House, says if people don’t articulate their personal history the process of mourning cannot go ahead. “Art is more clear and easier than words,” she says.
However Youk Chhang, director and founder of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, says Cambodia’s recent history needs to be addressed more directly in classrooms and is pushing for wider distribution of a specific Khmer Rouge-era textbook for students.
“To have a complete education you can’t study selective history. We have nothing to be proud of, but if the Khmer Rouge era becomes part of a child’s education it will help restore humanity, dignity and respect,” he says.
Veasna, meanwhile, concedes that the development of Cambodia’s art scene is slow but says she is optimistic about the future.
“Before, even relatives didn’t understand my art or really want to see it. Now people want to view it, know who the artist is and see what I am doing,” she says.
Sopheap Pich, one of Cambodia’s most successful contemporary artists, sees the Khmer mindset as part of an “internally visual culture.”
“I think that since the Khmer Rouge there has not been a lot of reading or education so what we remember is the visual culture,” he says, adding, “Art belongs to everyone and so does the past.”
Some 90 percent of Cambodian artists are estimated to have left the country or died during the 1970s.