The notorious S-21 or Tuol Sleng prison sits in the heart of Phnom Penh in an ordinary neighbourhood. Originally a school, the Khmer Rouge converted it into a prison for interrogations using torture that inevitably ended in execution for an estimated 20,000 or more people who were detained there.
Just seven people were known to have survived S-21. One of them – Vann Nath – was an artist and a writer who went on to document his experiences in both paintings and words.
Now a book of his paintings simply titled Vann Nath has been published and its launch event took place on March 14 at the Silapak Trotchaek Pneik gallery. .
The 239-page book is a collection of around 100 paintings by Vann Nath of the Cambodian civil war and the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge regime, but as art it transcends its purpose as a historical document and becomes something more universal, according to the book’s French-Cambodian editor Jean-Sien Kin, who says Vann Nath’s work helped shape who he is and helped him to accept his own identity.
Kin was a refugee who grew up in France and had trouble accepting his mixed identity as a child. He says he remembers feeling ashamed that his parents – who were Cambodian refugees, like him – couldn’t help him with his French-language homework.
When he had questions about school work and needed help they would send him over to some very generous neighbours because they themselves could barely read French.
“My parents struggle to talk about their past, so I decided to search into it by myself. As I Googled away on the topic I came across a painting by Vann Nath of two soldiers carrying a prisoner and the prisoner is trussed-up like an animal.
“This image really got into my head. And as I kept going and learning about my parents’ history, what I learned completely made me change my perspective, my judgments and my approach to life,” Kin tells The Post.
Vann Nath took what he witnessed while he was a prisoner at S-21 and channelled it through his artistic talents to create unique and moving imagery that Kin says helped him relate to the trauma that his parents and millions of other Cambodians went through.
“It was an important step in defining who I am today. Vann Nath played a huge role with that for me. He was the open gate to the truth about this troubled history. A troubled history that clarified my identity for me.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be like the other French kids at school who were white. I used to feel ashamed, but today I feel the opposite. I feel I was very lucky and privileged for having been supported and helped by many kind souls,” Kin explains.
Kin says he doesn’t view the Vann Nath collection he edited as a history book, though it does have value in that respect. Rather, he says what makes it special is Nath’s art and its intense and personal portrayal of his experiences and what it shows us about humanity.
Nath’s paintings are imbued with a painful honesty but his work was really dedicated to the next generations with the hope that they would learn about the past and prepare for a better future where it would never be repeated, he says.
“To me the way he explained things really makes him different. He seemed to not have any anger ... I am certain that people who sincerely get even a glimpse of the pain endured by the victims [portrayed by Nath] will strive for peace and prevent something like the Khmer Rouge atrocities from ever happening again. If we want to have hope for the future we need to keep fighting against barbarism and violence as a united community of human beings,” Kin says.
Nath is considered one of the most important witnesses to the tragedies of the Khmer Rouge period due to his gift for self-expression and his willingness to talk about the traumatic events he lived through.
In addition to bearing witness through his art, he was heavily involved with the creation of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and he also appeared in Rithy Panh’s documentary S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.
Nath even gave testimony at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal in 2009, in addition to the numerous speeches and interviews he did along with his own written memoirs .
Vann Nath’s art is a powerful expression that originated not just from his own direct experiences but also from the suffering of the victims around him. He felt the duty to make their voices heard beyond the brutal endings that fate had handed to them at S-21 long ago, Kin says.
“I agree that history leaves a trail with documents, but it also exists through the marks it leaves on the bodies and in the minds of the people who live through it. I am convinced that we need to have both art and documents to tell the whole story,” says Kin.
The idea of publishing the book was originally Nath’s own back in 2009, but sadly he passed away before he could realise that goal.
Kin met Nath for the first time in 2006 in France. Then in 2008, when Kin visited Cambodia for the first time he founded the “Friends of Vann Nath Association” (in French “Le Cercle des Amis de Vann Nath”) which had around 200 members who loved Nath’s art and were willing to help him with things like his medical expenses as he got older.
In August 2009, Nath told Kin that he intended to publish a collection of his paintings and Kin offered to help him with the task because he is a graphic designer by profession and could easily do a book layout for the project.
“In 2011, to my great sadness, [Vann Nath] passed away and despite many difficulties I persisted on doing this project with the help of Yvon Chalm – who is the current president of the Vann Nath Association – in order to keep my promise to him. Now, finally, it has been kept – ten-and-a-half years after his passing,” Kin says.
The process of gathering images of Nath’s paintings actually began when he was still alive over 12 years ago. It wasn’t easy because most of the owners of the paintings lived abroad in various places. Chalm and Kin needed to first determine who the owners were and then track them down one-by-one in order to obtain good quality photos of each painting to archive and eventually include in the new book.
Dozens of people were involved over the years on the project in some way or another but there are six authors listed officially: Anne-Laure Porée, a journalist and a researcher; Rithy Panh, the film director; Sylvie Blocher, an artist; Yean Reaksmey, the STP art gallery curator and Sara Colm and Soko Phay, who are both human rights researchers and experts.
“The book aims to reflect Vann Nath’s entire artistic trajectory as comprehensively as possible. The most well-known aspect of his work is his fight to keep alive the memory of the victims of the Khmer Rouge. He carried their voices to be heard beyond their deaths so that their fates would not be meaningless,” Kin says.
STP curator Reaksmey adds that it’s an honour for them to publicly release this output of Nath’s and he is happy that Nath’s family has allowed them to publish the collection and show Nath’s works.
Reaksmey met Nath in 2011 – just two months before he passed away – while studying at the Phare art school.
“When I met him my ideas about who he was changed. I saw a painting of Kaing Guek Eav – better known as Comrade Duch, the commander of S-21 – sitting in the centre of a pile of skulls.
“This painting was an attempt to show the greater truth of what happened metaphorically rather than it being literally just something he witnessed. Because one man can only see firsthand a small part of the vast whole of the suffering that was taking place at that time and what he was trying to express was the enormity of that man’s crimes.
“Nath was a multifaceted artist who not only showed us the atrocities of war, he was also a man who tried to create or find peace despite his experiences. He’s an important person in Cambodian history, but truly he was a very important person in Cambodian art history,” says Reaksmey.
Vann Channarong – Nath’s youngest son – attended the launch event for the book on behalf of the rest of the family.
He says he is grateful to see this book published as a way to celebrate the body of work that his late father created over a lifetime.
“I just want to give thanks to each and every person who made this book possible. I’m happy that more people will be able to appreciate his work now, and special thanks to bong Jean Sien Kin who worked so hard to make this happen,” says Channarong, who is of a creative disposition like his father and works as a graphic designer and photographer for Bophana.
The book will be available in Phnom Penh at the Vann Nath Art Gallery, Silapak Trotchaek Pneik Art Gallery, Sa Sa Art Projects and the Pichet Design Shop.
“With around 100 paintings – including his most well-known works – the book also contains many lesser known paintings that detail his struggle to find peace and his longing for peacefulness. We believe that at least roughly 100 more paintings or so exist that we have not identified conclusively or found the owners of yet, so we also hope that the book will find its way into the hands of those unknown paintings’ owners and we will be able to release a second edition in a few years with those works,” Kin says.
For more information about the Vann Nath book visit: Facebook.com/STPCambodia