Toul Sleng painter’s legacy under threat

Kith Eng, widow of the late painter Vann Nath, poses with a photo from their wedding day.
Kith Eng, widow of the late painter Vann Nath, poses with a photo from their wedding day. SRENG MENG SRUN

Toul Sleng painter’s legacy under threat

Sometimes, Kith Eng will turn around and, from the corner of her eye, catch a glimpse of her late husband, the famed painter, human rights activist and S-21 survivor Vann Nath. It could be a tuft of his snowy hair, a freckled nose, creased brow or his almond-shaped, onyx coloured eye.

The comforting ghost of Vann Nath lingers in their home, she says.

Eng spends much of her time in the gallery that the artist used in the years before his death. He named it after his wife. The vast restaurant flanking the gallery was once a lively space – tourists, NGO workers and locals would visit Nath, who would patiently recount his experiences under Pol Pot’s brutal regime, perhaps purchase a print of his work or a postcard, and eat bowls of amok or bai chaa that Eng and her team would whip up behind the scenes.

Nath opened the gallery in 2008. The room was draped with huge, vivid canvases of forced labour sites, shocking images of torture at Tuol Sleng, the skulls of Choeung Ek – some of the most important historical artefacts from 1975-79 Cambodia. He’d fallen critically ill in 2005, diagnosed with kidney disease, and though he received donations from patrons and friends worldwide, he continued to paint and sell his work to pay for his treatment

Today the restaurant is but a whisper of what it was – on the day we visit, a lone policeman sips on an iced coffee, and Eng says she averages a couple of customers per day ordering drinks. She has closed down the kitchen, but keeps vigil in her chair beside the gallery’s entrance, in the hope that a tour group will drop by.

September 5 will mark the two-year anniversary since Nath’s death. Yet while Eng, her three children, their partners and children will use the occasion to fulfill one of Nath’s final wishes – the translation and publishing of his autobiography into Khmer, which was finished and sent to the printers this week – the moment will be bittersweet.

A year shy of 60, Eng herself has been plagued with mounting medical bills to treat her high blood pressure and diabetes. With the restaurant income they had survived on seeping away, last week, she sold one of the family’s three last original oil paintings of Nath’s for, at just $1,000, a price Nath’s friends and curators have said was well beneath the portrait’s worth.

“I feel a sense of emptiness now. We have to pay $1,000 in tax every year. We didn’t get much help when my husband was ill … but now there’s nothing. He worked to the day he died. He painted, painted, painted, to sell and support the family.”

Eng says she would often watch as Nath created his work – he’d confide in her the fears and images seared into his memory. She can remember talking intimately to him about the two paintings that remain: one, a startling picture of an S-21 cell, crammed with emaciated figures being hosed, gasping for water, the other of Nath hauling a gilded Naga across a tempestuous ocean, from France to the temples of Angkor.

Figures such as Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, and Yvon Chalm, the president of the French-run Vann Nath Friends Circle, have sounded alarm over the fact the family’s legacy of Nath’s work is being sold at a reduced price and have suggested the family sell the paintings through a gallery or curator. Chalm says years before his death works of Nath’s fetched, at Hong Kong gallery Chancery Lane, up to $10,000, and that they could be worth double that now. But for Eng, the thought of the work leaving the space her husband spent his last days in is unbearable.

Vann Nath, in Tuol Sleng, beside one of his paintings in the Khmer Rouge prison.
Vann Nath, in Tuol Sleng, beside one of his paintings in the Khmer Rouge prison. AFP

“If I just had an income of $300 a month, then I could keep everything here,” she says.

For Nath’s youngest son, Narong, keeping at least some of Nath’s originals within the family is of huge importance.

“It is just important that his work is seen. I think it was important for him to have the gallery at our home. My dream would be for it to be set up more professionally. I am happy many people see his work at Tuol Sleng though." Fourteen of Vann Nath’s original artworks hang at the site.

Eng receives 25 per cent from all of the 23 paintings, photos, sculptures and poems by eminent Cambodian artists inspired by Nath sold from a tribute to the man held in January, organised by the Vann Nath Friends Circle, along with a cut of profits from the group’s book dedicated to him.

Nath, who died in 2011 at 66, was one of seven known survivors of the torture prison. His life was spared after guards, and Duch, discovered he could paint and he was put to work depicting Pol Pot. After the Khmer Rouge’s fall in 1979, Nath painted poignant images of what he had seen.

He’d grown up poor in Battambang, and had after a short stint as a monk trained under a local painter, eventually setting up a business creating posters, billboards and album covers of 1960s Golden Era starlets and the films of the late King Father Sihanouk.

Eng clutches a photograph of the pair on their wedding day – assembled in a traditional pose, the beehived, bejewelled bride lights a cigarette for her new husband.

“We met at a traditional ceremony, it was very crowded, and when I came out I stepped on his toes and he screamed in pain. I looked up and, well, fell in love,” she remembers.

After the fall of Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, Nath and Eng were ordered to toil the rice fields in the outer reaches of Battambang. He was arrested by soldiers on December 30, 1977 and eventually transferred to S-21 on January 7, just over a week later.

“He was forced to leave us before he was arrested, they said he was going to Pursat to cut bamboo. I thought he was dead. When the Vietnamese came through [in 1979] he came to find me in Battambang. Of course I had thought he was dead. When he appeared, I cannot describe the shock I felt. I fainted. I thought he was born again!”

Two of the couple’s children perished under the regime. They later had three more.

Chalm says the purpose of the organisation he fronts is foremost to preserve Nath’s memory and work: This has manifested in an extensive, detailed catalogue of the legend’s work – locating and photographing each painting or sketch (so far they’ve documented 120), talking with the buyer about its history, noting its condition, title and worth. Chalm had worked on the catalogue with Nath for years, and talks of the artist’s painstaking attention to detail. For Chalm, the sale last week was distressing: He doesn’t know where the painting has gone.

“What we have is impossible to re-create. It was an important task and mission for him. Most buyers had bought six, seven or eight pieces, mainly ECCC lawyers, NGO workers. He had a big input. One of his chief concerns was the truth – when he sold work he was very fastidious and concerned with the date of the painting, the exact title – he was an exact man … so we worked on this together.”

Lon Nara with Vann Nath’s notebook.
Long Nara with Vann Nath’s notebook. SRENG MENG SRUN

“I would like to see people that know the history, that have an attachment, own them. Like Rob Hamill – his brother [Kerry, a sailor from New Zealand] died at Tuol Sleng. [Rob] met Vann Nath during the trial, they become close and Robert asked him to paint two paintings of his brother.”

Yet Chalm thinks the Khmer edition of Nath’s memoir could provide the injection of cash the family may need to revive the restaurant and gallery.

Lon Nara married Nath’s daughter Chansiman in 2003. He worked closely with Nath typing out his Khmer script and had learnt a great deal about the artist.

“We started in 2008, at first he was a figure of authority, as all father-in-laws are, but I got to know him and he inspired me greatly. A person who believed so strongly in freedom, a huge heart.… His clothes didn’t look noble, but he was a man of distinction in every way. By 2011 most of the text was almost complete – but there was an additional 10 pages about the first day he read out at the [ECCC] trial, about being uneasy and nervous. He decided he didn’t want this in the book though.”


Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center founder, film director and Cannes Un Certain Regarde winner, Rithy Panh, who was friends with Nath for 25 years, says he was incensed that Nath did not receive more support from the government and the ECCC.

“When he was alive nobody helped him! Bou Meng, Chum Mey – the same.… This is something I cannot understand – so many people say we need to preserve memory … the tribunal – these people are that memory and nobody takes care of them.”

He hopes that DC-Cam may one day keep the paintings in a private museum.

“S21 needs to be reorganised. There needs to be more educational tools and material,” he said, citing the Holocaust Museum in New York and Japan’s Hiroshima Museum as examples.

The director of S-21 said the collection of Nath’s work on display at the museum was invaluable, but added there was little chance Tuol Sleng could be enlarged or renovated. “Phnom Penh municipal has officially given the land nearby the museum to the people who lived there. We have no ability and money to make the museum to become bigger.”

Meanwhile, Sam Thida, deputy director of Phnom Penh’s National Museum, said there was currently no space to present Cambodia’s more recent history.

Chhang, of DC-Cam, thinks that needs to change.

He is spearheading a joint DC-Cam and government project, the Sleuk Rith Institute, which will include a museum, school and research centre on the former Boeung Trabek detention centre site, along with exhibitions at 24 provincial museums, a museum in Siem Reap, an archaeology museum and the 100-year anniversary (in 2020) of the National Museum.

Chhang would like to see the original floor plan of the National Museum realised (with extra display rooms to the left and right) to house more recent historical objects.

“People, when they first re-entered Phnom Penh, after the Khmer Rouge, had so many things with them: cameras, letters, documents. You’d be surprised by how much is still out there – so many primary documents.

“I think if an actual museum opened, it would prompt people to come in and donate, or sell the documents – that woman that gave me the photographs [last year, the largest ever collection of black-and-white photographs from S-21 (1427 of them) were given to DC-CAM] thought they were a living spirit.”

For Eng, the spirit of her late husband lives on through the few works that still line her walls.

“He spoke about his experiences – this painting, of the [Tuol Sleng] showering scene, he’s inside there, you know. Of course I would rather keep them than sell them,” she says, voice a quiver.

At Nath’s funeral, a serene photograph of the artist at work sat atop his coffin. In the picture, Nath is dressed in white, etching into a metal plate in RUFA’s airy Char printmaking studio – creating the prints now for sale at Eng’s gallery. It was the last image of Nath ever taken – he died just over a month later – and is a living reminder of the painter’s calm, determined strength.

Additional reporting by Molyka Rom


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