Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The life of a chronicler: new book pays tribute to Vann Nath

The life of a chronicler: new book pays tribute to Vann Nath

The life of a chronicler: new book pays tribute to Vann Nath

17 vann nath
‘Memory is both a duty and the subject of his artistic work,’ writes Cambodian artist Karay about Vann Nath (above). Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

‘Memory is both a duty and the subject of his artistic work,’ writes Cambodian artist Karay about Vann Nath (above). Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Apile of off-white skulls with dark, hollow eye sockets sit at the base of a large tree, its roots growing like tentacles. Nearby, a woman kneels at a shrine, remembering the dead.

The subject of this painting, like much of Vann Nath’s work, is memory.

It’s also the common thread that weaves through 15 reflective, previously unpublished essays that appear in Vann Nath Tribute, a new book dedicated to the revered artist – one of only a handful of Tuol Sleng survivors.

While imprisoned at the notorious Khmer Rouge torture and execution centre known as S-21, Nath was forced to paint pictures of Pol Pot and other senior Khmer Rouge leaders.

Later, as a survivor, his paintings documented in graphic detail the horrors inflicted on his fellow prisoners.

“Memory is often manipulated because it is fragile. The unshakeable reconstitution of Vann Nath gives strength to his own memories,” writes the anonymous Cambodian artist known as Karay in his essay.

Nath, the first witness to take the stand at the Khmer Rouge tribunal, testified against his former jailer, Tuol Sleng commandant Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch.

It was not the first time that Nath would face his former tormentors. He made a searing appearance in Rithy Panh’s film S-21, confronts his former captors in his search for answers as to what happened and why.

Karay writes that Nath’s role in that film conveyed “his obsession with the search for truth, the constitution of the facts in all their horror”.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The book is available at Monument, Java and Carnet d’Asie.

The new book, published as part of a tribute exhibition held earlier this year, features paintings from Nath and artists he inspired alongside prose written by friends, critics, writers, artists and historians, including notable tribunal figures David Chandler and Helen Jarvis.

“He was an inspiring and thoughtful witness to a pitch-dark period of Cambodian history,” writes historian Chandler.

“He was never willing to dig a hole and bury the past. Instead the past lived inside him, every day, and he bore witness to it, courageously but with an accessible, compassionate humanity as well.”

This commitment led Nath to wear many hats in the last years of his life. He was also a teacher, a patient interviewee for scores of journalists and a writer who produced the only firsthand account of S-21.

Panh notes in his introduction that while many expected Nath to be a civil party at the tribunal, he instead chose to be a witness, a move that was indicative of his character.

“He made it clear that he did not only want to tell about abuses; he was ready for a confrontation of ideas, for moral confrontation . . . ”

The book is published by the Friends of Vann Nath, a group originally established to raise funds to pay Nath’s medical expenses during his fight with chronic kidney disease.

Since his death in 2011, the group’s mission has been to keep Nath’s memory alive.

Yvon Chalm, president of the group, said Nath was especially concerned that Cambodia’s younger generations would not understand the magnitude of the genocide experienced by their parents and grandparents.

“He knew he would die and that the future of Cambodia was more important than his own life.”

MOST VIEWED

  • Gov’t not using EU aid for poor

    Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday refuted as “baseless”, claims that the government had used financial aid from the EU to implement the programme to identify and support poor and vulnerable people during the Covid-19 pandemic. The prime minister was responding to Roth Sothy, a

  • PM to vet NY holiday dates

    The Ministry of Economy and Finance submitted a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen asking him to formally set a five-day national holiday from August 17-21 to make up for the Khmer New Year holiday in April that was postponed. Finance minister Aun Pornmoniroth sent

  • Cambodia rejects UN rights claim

    Cambodia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva on Friday hit back at David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression after he raised concerns over the repression of free speech and

  • Snaring may spawn diseases

    The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has warned that snaring of animals has become a crisis that poses a serious risk to wildlife in Southeast Asia and could spawn the transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans. Its July 9 report entitled Silence of the Snares: Southeast Asia’

  • Ex-party leader, gov’t critic named as secretary of state

    A former political party leader known for being critical of the government has been appointed secretary of state at the Ministry of Rural Development, a royal decree dated July 9 said. Sourn Serey Ratha, the former president of the Khmer Power Party (KPP), told The Post

  • Residence cards set for over 80,000 immigrants

    The Ministry of Interior plans to grant residence cards to more than 80,000 immigrants to better keep track of them. The ministry announced the plan on July 10, following the results of an immigration census. “An inter-ministerial committee and many operational working groups have been set up

  • Kingdom produces PPE gear

    Medical supplies from Cambodia have been donated to member countries of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to assist in the fight against Covid-19, said an ADB report published on July 9. The report stated that the supplies were donated as a response to global efforts to

  • Kingdom, US vow stronger ties

    At an academic forum on Saturday to celebrate 70 years of Cambodia-US diplomatic ties, Cambodian researchers and officials expressed hope of encouraging US investments and for that country to deepen and improve its bilateral relations. Held at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, it reviewed the past 70

  • ‘Single Portal’ integrated registration system welcomes nearly 50 firms

    Forty-seven companies have successfully registered via a newly-launched information technology e-business registration platform as of the end of the second week of this month, Ministry of Economy and Finance secretary of state Phan Phalla said. Six ministries and state-run institutions have been integrated into a

  • Battambang artist brings giant animals to life

    The giant reptile’s gaping mouth appears ready to consume its latest victim. It stands taller than a person and is incredibly life-like with authentic colours, a long spiky tail and detailed scales adorning its entire body. If it wasn’t 13m long, you may