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Reinterpreting Tuol Sleng photos

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Will Baxter

The faces in the paintings are somehow familiar. Their eyes have the same haunting stare that any visitor to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum knows intimately.
But unlike the original black-and-white photographs of Tuol Sleng victims, the paintings of Dutch artist Peter Klashorst are laced with colours both vibrant and subdued, giving their surreal expressions a hint of the contemporary.
Klashorst, who was born in the Netherlands in 1957, is currently preparing for an exhibition of 40 to 50 paintings – many of them portraits of Tuol Sleng victims – that will open at the museum in either December or January.
The purpose of the exhibition, he said, is to “pay homage to the people who died there…in the hope that [their] spirit will come alive somehow”.
Noting the difference between the photographs of victims and his own work, he said, “These photographs, they were not made to be hung in a museum. They were made for a very different reason. The way [the museum] looks now, it has the feeling as if these people just left the building and could come back at any moment.”
After visiting Tuol Sleng for the first time in January of this year, Klashorst flew back to Bangkok the same day and painted an initial series of eight portraits using both a brush and can of spray paint.
He said the style of the portraits had been influenced by the works of African-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and French artist Guy Peellaert.
“I always like to paint from life, so this was a change,” he said. “It is good to connect with these people through their photographs. You look in the mirror when you look at these people somehow.”
He also followed the buildup to and aftermath of the verdict handed down in July against prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, who was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the killing of up to 16,000 people.
“I cannot imagine that these people like Duch can sleep at night,” he said. “How can you have knowledge and education and kill all of these people?”
The exact timing of the exhibition will be influenced by renovation work at the museum, which is being carried out by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
Ke Soponnaka, the museum’s director, said the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts had given the exhibition the green light in September.
“[This exhibition] is very important for Cambodian people so they are aware of the life of people during the [Khmer Rouge] regime,” he said.
“The paintings are not like the ones painted by the surviving prisoners, who know what it was really like at the prison, because these paintings are made according to the victims’ photos.”
Chum Mey, one of only a handful of inmates to have survived Tuol Sleng, said he believed the exhibition would be “most advantageous for the museum”.
“Cambodian and international tourists will visit the museum because they want to see the paintings of victims who died during the Pol Pot regime,” he said. “Some victims who are still alive will be reminded of what happened in the past.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SUN NARIN AND SEN DAVID

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