Veteran Cambodian painter Vann Nath opened his art gallery at the Kith Eng Restaurant in Phnom Penh to the public on July 1, unveiling paintings documenting his time at Tuol Sleng, the notorious Khmer Rouge prison.
Nath owns the restaurant that serves as the exhibition space, giving the gallery an intimate feel. Looking at the paintings creates a sense that the artist is personally narrating his life story to you.
Nath was captured by the Khmer Rouge and taken to Tuol Sleng, also known as S-21, in December 1977. He was saved from almost certain execution in February 1978 after being commissioned to paint portraits of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.
Nath was one of only seven survivors of Tuol Sleng, where an estimated 14,000 people were detained and brutalized before being executed. Nath went on to produce paintings as a visual memoir of his experiences following the collapse of the Pol Pot regime.
Ten of Nath’s paintings tell the story of his capture, incarceration, and escape from execution. They are arranged around the gallery in chronological order. On the wall opposite the entrance is a photograph taken of Nath upon his entry into Tuol Sleng, emphasising the reality of his experiences.
Nath said that he wanted his gallery to teach the younger generations of Cambodians about the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime.
“Some believe and some do not believe,” Nath said. “But they can come and look at my paintings as evidence, and make up their own minds. They can look at my pictures as testament to the atrocities carried out at Tuol Sleng.”
“If they want to learn about the Pol Pot era, the younger generations of Cambodians can read the books and documents and look at photos from that time. They should also ask their parents to tell them about their experiences. It is up to them to piece together the evidence,” he said.
Sara Colm of the New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch, speaking at the exhibition opening, said “Vann Nath is not only a victim of Khmer Rouge human rights abuses at Tuol Sleng, but he has dedicated his life to keeping the memories alive. He has an intense devotion to accuracy and a photographic memory.”
Colm called Nath the “the voice of conscience for Cambodia. He won’t forget the actions of the Khmer Rouge, even in the face of health problems and other issues.”
“It’s important to keep all the paintings together as a series,” said Colm. “The permanent display of these pictures reflects Vann Nath’s devotion to history and memory.”
The gallery will be a permanent installation at the Kith Eng Restaurant at 33B Street 169. It is open from 6 to 9pm and can be viewed only upon request.
“Anyone who has an interest in knowing about my experiences in the Pol Pot era can come and see,” said Nath.