Painter Pech Song in a reflective mood
I'M not doing political paintings," says Pech Song, even as he puts the
finishing touches to an image of a Khmer Rouge soldier about to hit a cowering man.
"These paintings are just to tell the Cambodian younger generation about the
political activities of Cambodia in the past. If we don't do it, no-one will know."
Song, who hs been painting all his life, is embarking on an ambitious project to
depict five regimes of Cambodian political and social life, covering a time span
of more than forty years.
He himself has lived through all of them, and his eye for detail and wry sense of
humour gives his paintings a distinctive 'commentary' feel rarely found in contemporary
His career as a painter began at the University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in 1965.
His father, less than impressed with Song's choice of career, forbade him to take
his examinations, fearing a life dedicated to art was destined to be a life of poverty.
So Song simply 'borrowed' his cousin's name, and sat the exam anyway. He has kept
the cousin's name ever since - his birth name is Meas Chan Than.
"My father did not know for a long time what I did for a job, until I became
famous," he chuckled.
His work has a dramatic, filmic quality - a skill he learnt during many years as
one of the country's premier cinema poster painters.
Song's mammoth Lon Nol regime painting
The painting of the Lon Nol regime in particular resembles the kind of hand-painted
cinema posters that are so popular across Asia. Lon Nol himself looms large in the
top right corner, while scenes from the era follow a chronological loop around the
Images of a 1970 demonstration against then-Prince Sihanouk hover above soldiers
firing guns, a military man cavorting with a prostitute and a bottle of Johnny Walker
whisky. Song may not be 'political', but he certainly does not shy away from reality.
In contrast, the Khmer Rouge era is portrayed in subdued earthy colours, and depicts
now-familiar scenes of crowds leaving Phnom Penh, soldiers beating workers, and men
and women working in rice fields.
However, Song's own experiences during the Khmer Rouge regime were a little different
to the average Khmer.
He was imprisoned by the KR, but during a morning walk around the prison yard, even
though he was manacled, he managed to grab some charcoal that was lying on the ground.
When he went back to his cell, he began to draw images on the wall of the Khmer Rouge
capturing Lon Nol soldiers in 1975.
"When the guards saw what I had drawn they were very happy," he said. He
spent the rest of the regime painting propoganda for the KR.
Pech Song's Khmer Rouge regime painting.
Song hopes to paint five canvases altogether, although only the Lon Nol and Khmer
Rouge pieces are anywhere near finished. When they are completed Situations Gallery
plans to showcase them in a special exhibit.
The other regimes to be portrayed include the Sangkum Reastr Niyum of the 1960s,
the communist government of the 1980s, and the current Hun Sen government. So how
does he plan to portray today's Cambodia?
"Oh, there will be a large painting of a cyclo driver, and then images of smart
cars and land cruisers," says Song with a smile. "I'm going to depict the
economic crisis, and there will be the fist of Sam Rainsy as well."
Is he worried about reactions to his political content?
"If they think these paintings are wrong, what about Toul Sleng?" says
Song, referring to the famous KR crimes museum.
"I'm just showing history as it happened, as I remember it."
Pech Song's work will be shown in a future exhibition at Situations Gallery, Street