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A new generation of Cambodian artists look to the history to better understand the present

A new generation of Cambodian artists look to the history to better understand the present


Collaborations create a dialogue on memory and violence, while promoting cultural expression

Photo by: Sovan Philong
“Cambodia, The Memory”– educating students about the Khmer Rouge by displaying haunting archival images and compiling testimonies of genocide survivors.

The latest workshop, “Cambodia, The Memory” was the third organised by Soko Phay Vakalis in an effort to build a bridge of communication linking war victims with
the new generation of Khmer artists. The exhibit will run until December 26 at Bophana and the FCC. Bophana Audiovisual Center is at building #64 Oknha Men Street 200.

As a prisoner of the S-21 detention centre, Vann Nath was forced to use his artistic talent to paint a celebratory portrait of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Today he is using his survival story as a jump-off point for educating Cambodians about their dark and tragic past. “Other people can write books to tell the public,” said Vann Nath, “but for me I choose to draw so everybody, including the illiterate, can understand my drawings.”

Presently at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Centre and French Cultural Centre, traumatic memories are dissected and revealed in the works that were created during the “Cambodia, The Memory” workshop. The drawings, paintings, and other artistic installations were made by 10 young art students from the Royal University of Fine Arts and the Reyum Art School students who collaborated with veteran Cambodian artists Vann Nath and Ing Phousera to shed light on lingering memories of the Khmer Rouge.

Drawing inspiration from the Bophana Center’s vast collection of documentary footage, broadcast and audio recordings and photographs, the young artists attempted to identify with trauma victims through first-hand recollections.

“Our objective is to remind ourselves of the past by working on art carefully,” said Soko Phay Vakalis who organised the workshop. Soko believes in art’s role of recording people’s history and tapping into their memories and experiences.

Some 30 drawings, paintings, and photographs reveal how these artists’ lives relate to past events and highlight the motivations for their involvement in the project.

Art teacher Sau Sophy, 23, focuses on Khmer traditional healing (Krou Khmer) in the piece she created for the workshop. In her drawing, a pot is stirred by thin orange sticks as a skinny baby writhes in pain in the foreground. Sau Sophy explains people in the Khmer Rouge regime did not have access to health services or medicine, so they turned to the medicinal powers of Khmer traditional healers. “The baby is a representative of Cambodians in that time. When they were sick, they went to see Khmer traditional healers.”

Vann Nath’s entries into the exhibition epitomise his painful past and recapture the struggle to rebuild after the brutality that he and other survivors and him experienced decades ago. In one of his paintings, two bright green lotus plants are growing from cracked, bone-dry earth. The bud on one of the plants is on the verge of blossoming into a bright pink flower. Life and beauty have been born in the driest of deserts. For Vann Nath and others, it is this sort of reflection on the past and optimism for the future that they want to capture on canvas.

The artists themselves represent these duelling realities – a bleak past and a bright future – and through the workshop, Vann Nath and Ing Phousera were able to share their experiences during Cambodia’s darkest days with the young people who are the emerging artistic voice of the Kingdom.

“We want to create a history with obvious meaning, especially to include victims of the war,” said Soko Phay Vakalis, who added people must understand the history of Khmer Rouge in order to be open to a new page in the country’s history. “We should give meaning to the things that we have gone through in the last 30 years. Art can build the memory of young Cambodians to learn life lessons from history.”

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