Survivor Vann Nath’s Paintings Depict Life—And Death—In Tuol Sleng

Blindfolded, handcuffed and yok­ed together, the group of prisoners was led into S-21 prison like dogs into a kennel.

“I was the fourth or fifth person in line,” recalled painter Vann Nath, one of the few survivors of the Khmer Rouge detention center, where some 14,000 Cambo­dians were tortured and imprisoned. “[We] were hauled just like animals.”

The 63-year-old painter’s journey from Battambang province to Phnom Penh’s S-21 is the centerpiece of his first-ever solo exhibition, which opened at the Bophana Audiovisual Center on Phnom Penh’s Street 200 on Thursday and runs until Oct 12.

Entitled “Transfer,” the exhibition’s 14 canvases depict each stage of Vann Nath’s arrest and relocation to S-21 in early 1978, concluding with scenes from his first few months of imprisonment.

Vann Nath was originally arrested on charges of mobilizing a movement against the Khmer Rouge and of working for the US Central Intelligence Agency in late 1977, he said in a statement accompanying the exhibition. His book, “A Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21,” also details his experiences inside the prison.

Dominated by dark blues, greens and browns, the earlier paintings in the exhibition capture the anxiety and fear that gripped Vann Nath and his fellow prisoners during their journey to Phnom Penh.

The prisoners had no idea where they were being taken, and many believed they were go­ing to be executed, according to the painter’s notes accompanying the exhibition.

Vann Nath had been trucked to Phnom Penh together with many of his friends, who were “just glad to have arrived alive” at S-21, the notes said. All, save Vann Nath, would ultimately die following their arrival.

The prisoners’ transfer to S-21 “is a sad story unknown by anyone,” Vann Nath said at a press conference for the exhibition’s opening, adding that he began working on the series of paintings in 1996.

In contrast to his paintings displayed at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum—many of which feature graphic depictions of extreme torture—the Bophana exhibition is more subtly menacing, hinting at the horrors that were soon to come. The Bophana Center is partly the brainchild of film director Rithy Panh and receives some of its funding from France.

In one painting, a prisoner sits handcuffed in a chair before a photographer, who is documenting each new arrival. The yellow light that illuminates his body is as harsh and exposing as an interrogation lamp. In the next painting, a group of prisoners eat rice gruel in their cell, right beside the body of a dead prisoner whose feet are still shackled to the floor.

Dead bodies were left for as long as 24 hours in the cells, Vann Nath said. “At that time it seemed as if we did not have a sense of disgust or revulsion. We thought the same thing would happen to us later on,” his exhibition notes state.

Vann Nath also criticized the Khmer Rouge tribunal for failing to move forward faster.

“In the very beginning, I was hopeful, but later on, there is no hope for me,” he said, adding that he thought that if the tribunal now runs out of money, it should be shut down.

At the show’s opening, Vann Nath received a certificate for the Hellman/Hammett award, presented by Human Rights Watch re­searcher Sara Colm. The annual award, whose 45 winners around the world were announced in Feb­ruary, is bestowed by Human Rights Watch to writers who display courage in the face of political persecution.

Vann Nath said his failing health is interfering with his ability to work. A kidney disease has forced him to rely on dialysis treatments and medication that costs $1,000 per month, he said, adding that private international donors were helping to cover his medical costs.

While Vann Nath said he had “no strong expectations” for his current exhibition, he said his main aim was to reach out to Cam­bodian youth and remind them of what happened under the Khmer Rouge.

“Youth…do not know the story about this particular region, they only have mouth-to-mouth knowledge, from their parents,” Vann Nath said. “They don’t know about the suffering of the people.”

 

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