Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Pol Pot artist links past to present with "Art of Survival"

Mon Jan 28, 2008

PHNOM PENH Jan 28 (Reuters Life!) -- Cambodian artist Van Nath's talents saved his life in the 1970s, when he was forcibly put to work painting pictures of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.

Now the artist, one of a handful of remaining survivors of the regime's notorious Tuol Sleng prison, hopes his latest works will expose the reality of Pol Pot's rule to a new generation.

On show at Phnom Penh gallery Meta House as part of the "Art of Survival" exhibition, his paintings of prison life are aimed at helping visitors deal with the trauma of the Khmer Rouge's 1974-1979 rule, when an estimated 1.7 million people were executed or died of starvation, torture or disease.

But they also hold a mirror up to the present, said Van Nath, throwing the treatment of Khmer Rouge officials currently on trial for crimes during Pol Pot's rule, including "Brother Number Two" Nuon Chea, who has been linked to Tuol Sleng, into sharp relief.

"If I compare the prison where I was to Nuon Chea prison, it is very different. The prison at the Khmer Rouge court is very good. It has televisions, electricity, mattresses and they have enough food to eat," he told Reuters."

At the prison where I was, I was in handcuffs 24 hours a day with no food and no medicine. Now even with today's good prisons, prisoners can still ask to be released on bail. They complain that they cannot stay there. But what about me and the nearly 20,000 people who were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng?" Van Nath said.

An estimated 17,000 to 20,000 Cambodians were crammed into Tuol Sleng, also called "Security Prison 21" or "S-21" under the Khmer Rouge, a black-shirted communist guerrilla movement who declared war on modernity after overrunning Phnom Penh in 1975.

They were ousted four years later by a Vietnamese invasion.

Of the tens of thousands accused of betraying the regime at Tuol Sleng, only a dozen are known to have made it out.

The plain three-storied high school building, in a quiet quarter of the capital, is now a public memorial site and museum.

It draws thousands of visitors every year, as do the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, about 15 kilometres (9 miles) out of the capital, where the remains of many of Tuol Sleng's victims are buried in mass graves.

But some worry the country has not yet processed the trauma of the Pol Pot years, even as high-profile trials of former officials, including Tuol Sleng's former governor, Khang Khekh Ieu, or "Duch", make their way through a United Nations tribunal.

This is where artists such as Van Nath can contribute, said Metahouse gallery owner Nicolas Mesterharm.

"The young generation we work with knows a little bit, so we try to educate them and we try to bring young and older artists together," German-born Mesterharm told Reuters.

"We try to address that issue of genocide and the Khmer Rouge atrocities through art within the society that has not learnt yet to speak openly about what happened 25 years ago," he said.

A number of international documentaries and films, such as the 1984 Oscar-winning "Killing Fields", have brought the country's violent past to international audiences.

And several memoirs written by survivors of the regime sell at tourist sites such as Angkor Wat in the country's north, and Phnom Penh. But book sellers often say they have not read the English-language stories themselves.

For many young Cambodians, like student Sar Sayana, exhibitions such as the Art of Survival give a more accessible window to the past.

"It is important that these artist know what happened and that they made this exhibition so that others can know all about it too," she said, walking through the gallery.

(Reporting by Chantha Lach, Editing by Gillian Murdoch

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