Sep 22 2011

Vann Nath (1946-2011)

by Kathy Zhang

The Last Moment (2004), Oil On Canvas, 55×35cm. Courtesy the artist and Saklapel.

In late August, Cambodian painter Vann Nath’s heart stopped beating. He fell into a coma following sudden cardiac arrest and passed away a week later on September 5, at a private clinic in Phnom Penh. At 66 years of age, Nath was one of only three surviving witnesses to the atrocities committed at Security Prison 21 (S-21)—the most notorious interrogation and execution facility of the Khmer Rouge regime, which ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Though his calls to raise public awareness to the suffering his generation experienced have now fallen silent, Vann Nath’s art remains a chronicle of a tragic episode in Cambodian and human history, which must not be forgotten. 

Vann Nath was born in Wat Sopee, in Cambodia’s northwestern province of Battambang. As a young boy watching painters adorn the walls of Cambodia’s Buddhist temples, Nath was attracted to the arts early on. In 1965, he enrolled in a regional school to study painting, where he was trained in the French Impressionist style. After two years he began to work professionally, painting portraits on commission as well as movie billboards. 

The humble beginnings of Nath’s artistic career came to an abrupt halt when the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975. As part of the regime’s radical agrarian reforms, the artist and his family were allocated to the Norea agricultural commune in Battambang’s Sangke district. After working on the farm for nearly three years, Vann Nath was seized on December 29, 1977, under claims of violating the moral code instigated by the Angka, or “the Organization,” a group of enigmatic leaders that wielded absolute power over the Khmer Rouge bureaucracy. He was transported to S-21, in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, where he was to witness the senseless slaughter of his fellow inmates. The trauma he experienced at the prison—wherein upwards of 14,000 men, women and children were tortured and killed—directed his artistic output for the next two decades, and haunted him for most of his life.

On January 7, 1979, Nath and a half dozen others were liberated following the Vietnamese invasion of Phnom Penh. Later that year, Nath, on behalf of the new People’s Republic of Kampuchea, returned to the site to paint scenes of prison life, which adorn what is now the Tuol Sleng ("Strychnine Hill”) Genocide Museum. Depicted in somber oils, a man watches helplessly as his jailer plies his fingernails one by one; another is lashed with electric cords even after he falls unconscious to the ground; babies are snatched from their mothers to be—as the artist learned much later when attending the 2009 war crimes tribunal against S-21 prison commandant Kaing Guek Eav—smashed against a wall and killed.

Nath hoped, through his artwork and memoirs, to ameliorate the souls of the departed prisoners who would otherwise suffer, un-mourned in the afterlife. “I determined if one day I survived and had freedom,” he stated during the 2009 tribunal, “I would compile the events to reflect on what happened so that the younger generation . . . would know of our suffering.”

Only in the late 1990s did Nath move away from the gruesome portrayals of S-21, as he began to paint bucolic landscapes remembered from his childhood, and these mainly for friends and family. The Village of My Birth (1998), exhibited at Reyum Gallery in the historically important exhibition “Legacy of Absence: A Cambodian Story” (2000), shows the artist as a young man playing the flute, while resting under a Persian lilac tree in bloom. In the pasture beyond, cattle graze in between sugar palms. Representative of his later works, the painting envisioned an ideal world with childlike naivety, in which the Cambodian genocide had never occurred. 

A Buddhist ceremony was held at the artist’s home on September 6, where representatives from the French and Japanese embassies, as well as staff from the Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal came to pay their respects. “It is lucky for him, because he will not suffer in his heart any more,” commented Lon Nara, while mourning the loss of his father-in-law. “When he was living, he was tortured every day by his memory,” he told the Phnom Penh Post. Perhaps, Vann Nath has finally found peace in the idyllic Cambodia of his imaginings.