|March 2008. Vann Nath, translator Priya and myself, holding the camera for a documentary shoot at S-21|
A year ago, artist Vann Nath
passed away. Lest we never forget this kind and gentle man.
The following is an obituary from The Economist published on 17 September last year.
When he was 52, with a hand that still trembled, Vann Nath produced a
painting of a young man lying under a blossoming tree. He was playing a
pipe while, in the background, cattle grazed by green palms in some
bucolic corner of Cambodia. It was meant to be a self-portrait, he said,
a beautiful memory from his childhood. He wanted only to paint idyllic
landscapes now, in the style of temple murals or the French
Impressionists who had first inspired him to take up art.
That was because, in 1978-79, he had been made to paint quite
different pictures. In those months he was interned in S-21 prison, a
former French lycee
in Phnom Penh which had been
converted into a torture-compound for alleged enemies of the Khmer
Rouge regime. Perhaps 14,000 people were sent to S-21 for a daily
routine of electrocution, water-boarding and flagellation before being
carted off for execution—a shovel or spade to the head—at the nearby
“killing fields”. Mr Vann Nath was one of only six or seven prisoners to
make it out alive.
He never expected to. Like almost all the others, he had no idea why
he had been sent there. He was not an intellectual; his family was poor
and provincial, and he just a painter in a small business making signs
and billboards. In 1975, obedient to the Khmer Rouges, he had joined a
peasant commune and worked hard there. When he first saw the wasted
prisoners in S-21, he thought it was all over for him. But after
withering away for a month, fed so sparely on rice gruel that he felt an
urge to consume the flesh of the dead, he was asked to paint portraits
of the regime's leader, Pol Pot.
At first he thought he could not do it. The shocks and beatings meant
that he could barely stand. Besides, he had no idea what Pol Pot looked
like, and only a black-and-white photograph to copy. All the time he
painted, day and night, the screams of the tortured echoed from other
rooms. He hoped, with every brush-stroke, that his jailers would like
his work and let him live. He focused by thinking how much he would like
to kill the man he drew.
Nonetheless, he carried out the task to the satisfaction of Duch, the
prison commandant, the one—and still only—former cadre now being held
to account for his role in the revolution. For his flattering portraits,
giving Pol Pot a fresh-faced girl's rosy cheeks, Mr Vann Nath's name in
the prison ledger was tagged “Keep for use”. But for that “keeping”, he
often said, he would be dead.
When a Vietnamese invasion swept the Khmers Rouges from power, in
January 1979, his portrait-painting ended. But in 1980-81 an even more
harrowing spell of art began. The fleeing warders of S-21 left behind
troves of documents outlining the prison's work, but it was Mr Vann
Nath, painting his memories in sombre oils, who showed most vividly what
had happened there. Blindfolded men, women and children trucked into
the compound in the middle of the night. Men carried, trussed like pigs,
on bamboo poles. Babies torn from their mothers' arms—to be smashed
against walls, he learned later. Prisoners prodded, whipped and steered
by stone-faced cadres into holding cells to be crammed side by side,
like decaying logs. For many years after the Khmer Rouges fell from
power, the upper echelons of the regime denied S-21's existence. Mr Vann
Nath caught its reality in furtive glances, as he moved from cell to
He painted by stilling his mind, in a process both painful and
therapeutic. But painting still made no sense of what he had seen. It
seemed to him that Cambodia could not cleanse itself of such an evil,
and that his works were not good enough to do such horror justice. He
only hoped the souls of those who had died would get some ease from
When S-21 was turned into a museum of the national self-genocide he
had witnessed, some of his pictures hung on the walls. One day, for the
first time since 1979, he saw one of his former jailers there, a “tiger”
he had dreaded. Having puffed a few cigarettes to steel himself—for he
was always a man of poise, despite his tormented past—he approached him
affably and guided him by the shoulder to his paintings hanging there.
“Is this accurate?” he asked. It was, the jailer conceded.
The international media, whose questions about S-21 he patiently
answered time after time, called him Cambodia's Goya. He brushed it off.
His principal fear was that young Cambodians would not learn about—or,
worse still, would not believe—what he had witnessed. He painted, he
said, so that Cambodia would never turn on itself so monstrously again.
Two years ago Mr Vann Nath took the stand as a witness against Duch,
his former master, who is now appealing a 35-year jail sentence handed
down by a UN-backed war-crimes court in Cambodia. A second trial, of
four senior leaders of the regime, is not expected to start until next
year. The defendants say they are too ill to stand trial. They are
attended, however, by a world-class team of doctors; Mr Vann Nath, who
suffered years of kidney disease, struggled to afford even basic care.
His testimony will be missing from subsequent proceedings. His
paintings, however, speak for him.
|A self portrait of Vann Nath during his S-21 incarceration|
Labels: S-21, Tuol Sleng, Vann Nath