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Painting down the years

Painter Pech Song in a reflective mood

I'M not doing political paintings," says Pech Song, even as he puts the

finishing touches to an image of a Khmer Rouge soldier about to hit a cowering man.

"These paintings are just to tell the Cambodian younger generation about the

political activities of Cambodia in the past. If we don't do it, no-one will know."

Song, who hs been painting all his life, is embarking on an ambitious project to

depict five regimes of Cambodian political and social life, covering a time span

of more than forty years.

He himself has lived through all of them, and his eye for detail and wry sense of

humour gives his paintings a distinctive 'commentary' feel rarely found in contemporary

Cambodian art.

His career as a painter began at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in 1965.

His father, less than impressed with Song's choice of career, forbade him to take

his examinations, fearing a life dedicated to art was destined to be a life of poverty.

So Song simply 'borrowed' his cousin's name, and sat the exam anyway. He has kept

the cousin's name ever since - his birth name is Meas Chan Than.

"My father did not know for a long time what I did for a job, until I became

famous," he chuckled.

His work has a dramatic, filmic quality - a skill he learnt during many years as

one of the country's premier cinema poster painters. 

Song's mammoth Lon Nol regime painting

The painting of the Lon Nol regime in particular resembles the kind of hand-painted

cinema posters that are so popular across Asia. Lon Nol himself looms large in the

top right corner, while scenes from the era follow a chronological loop around the

edge.

Images of a 1970 demonstration against then-Prince Sihanouk hover above soldiers

firing guns, a military man cavorting with a prostitute and a bottle of Johnny Walker

whisky. Song may not be 'political', but he certainly does not shy away from reality.

In contrast, the Khmer Rouge era is portrayed in subdued earthy colours, and depicts

now-familiar scenes of crowds leaving Phnom Penh, soldiers beating workers, and men

and women working in rice fields.

However, Song's own experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime were a little different

to the average Khmer.

He was imprisoned by the KR, but during a morning walk around the prison yard, even

though he was manacled, he managed to grab some charcoal that was lying on the ground.

When he went back to his cell, he began to draw images on the wall of the Khmer Rouge

capturing Lon Nol soldiers in 1975.

"When the guards saw what I had drawn they were very happy," he said. He

spent the rest of the regime painting propoganda for the KR.

Pech Song's Khmer Rouge regime painting.

Song hopes to paint five canvases altogether, although only the Lon Nol and Khmer

Rouge pieces are anywhere near finished. When they are completed Situations Gallery

plans to showcase them in a special exhibit.

The other regimes to be portrayed include the Sangkum Reastr Niyum of the 1960s,

the communist government of the 1980s, and the current Hun Sen government. So how

does he plan to portray today's Cambodia?

"Oh, there will be a large painting of a cyclo driver, and then images of smart

cars and land cruisers," says Song with a smile. "I'm going to depict the

economic crisis, and there will be the fist of Sam Rainsy as well."

Is he worried about reactions to his political content?

"If they think these paintings are wrong, what about Toul Sleng?" says

Song, referring to the famous KR crimes museum.

"I'm just showing history as it happened, as I remember it."

Pech Song's work will be shown in a future exhibition at Situations Gallery, Street

178.

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