Vann Nath obituary
Cambodian painter who survived and depicted the horrors of the Khmer Rouge's S21 prison: by Tom Fawthrop
After his escape from S21, the prison hell of the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, the painter Vann Nath became the most celebrated survivor, and an important witness, of one of history's darkest chapters. His graphic depictions of the horrendous torture at S21, painted in the years after his release, became evidence in the conviction of the prison chief Kaing Guek Eav, known as Duch, by the UN-backed Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal that sat in Phnom Penh from 2007 onwards.
In January 1978, Vann – who has died aged 65, after lapsing into a coma following breathing difficulties – was detained by the Khmer Rouge as an "enemy of the state". He was taken to S21, also known as Tuol Sleng, the headquarters of the Santebal (state security). This was the interrogation, intelligence and torture centre of the Khmer Rouge. At least 15,000 suffered the same incarceration. Only a handful survived.
The documentary archives from S21 reveal that Vann's name was on the execution list, signed by Duch, in 1978. At the last minute, Duch, who orchestrated the confessions and torture of the inmates, scribbled a note: "Spare the painter." The last-minute reprieve came about because they needed someone to paint a portrait of their supreme leader, Pol Pot. Vann was among the seven or eight prisoners who narrowly escaped death by dint of their special skills and usefulness to the regime.Vann was born into a poor family who could not afford to send him to school. He had two brothers and a sister, and grew up in Battambang province, western Cambodia. His interest in art was sparked by the elaborate paintings that adorn the walls of Cambodia's Buddhist temples. He left home to serve as a Buddhist monk from the age of 17 to 21. He then enrolled at a painting school. Before 1975, when the Khmer Rouge took power, his life as a painter of landscapes and cinema posters in Battambang was unexceptional and apolitical. He was working in a rice field when he was arrested in 1978. The Khmer Rouge took him to Wat Kandal, a temple used as a detention centre, and told him that he had violated the regime's moral code. Huge numbers of artists and other professionals perished during the Pot Pot regime. Commissioned by the new government's ministry of information and culture, in the 1980s Vann vividly captured on canvas the horrendous torture and excruciating suffering he experienced along with his fellow inmates. These starkly vivid paintings still adorn the walls of the museum.
In 1998, Vann's story, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge's S21, was published. He appeared in the film S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), in which he confronted his former jailers in a tensely dramatic reconstruction of life inside Pol Pot's torture chamber. He interrogated the prison guards with a calm dignity in his search for answers, explanations and truth. This riveting film, directed by the Cambodian film-maker Rithy Panh, received the François Chalais prize at Cannes in 2003.
Vann has been widely recognised for his work. He received the Hellman/Hammett award for persecuted writers twice. He was artist in residence at Providence College, Rhode Island, during the Spirit of Cambodia art exhibition in 2002, and during a US book tour in 2003 he was made an honorary citizen of Lowell, Massachusetts. Surely his finest moment came as a key witness in the courtroom in the historic encounter between Vann and his former jailer, Duch. For the victims of the "killing fields", it had been an agonisingly long wait for justice. Vann declared in 2009, when the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh commenced: "I have waited 30 years for this. I never imagined that I would be able to sit in this courtroom today to describe my plight, my experience. I hope by the end that justice can be tangible, can be seen by everybody."
Vann suffered from kidney disease for many years and underwent periodic dialysis treatment, although he still managed to travel abroad for exhibitions of his work. In 2010, he required spinal surgery. With no financial support from his own government, he was forced to survive on the sales of his paintings. Vann's hugely expensive medical treatment prompted Rithy to launch a successful fundraising campaign for him.
In spite of his personal suffering and financial hardship, Vann never lost his determination to fight for justice. He is survived by his wife, Kith Eng, and two children.
• Vann Nath, artist and human rights activist, born 1946; died 5 September 2011. Courtesy of Guardian.co.uk.
A special screening of S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine will be held at Bophana Center on Friday, 9 September at 6.30pm in his memory.
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