New exhibition pays tribute to S-21 survivor artist Vann Nath, who passed away in 2011. Ellie Dyer goes to the Bophana Centre to discover more.

Artist, teacher, prisoner, witness, survivor: Cambodian artist Vann Nath was each of these and more.

The late painter was one of a handful of prisoners to walk out of Tuol Sleng — the former school that became a torture centre under the Khmer Rouge — alive. The artist entered the S-21 death factory in January 1978 and was only spared from being ‘smashed’ along with fellow inmates in order to paint pictures of the regime’s leader, ‘Brother Number One’ Pol Pot.

“Death was imminent,” he was recorded as saying during witness testimony at the trial of the prison’s former chief, Kaing Guek Eav alias Comrade Duch, in 2009. “People died one after another.”

Unlike at least 12,272 others, Vann Nath survived and later recorded the brutality of the Khmer Rouge by portraying his memories of torture and abuse through art. He produced more than a hundred works before his death from a heart attack aged 66.

“His biography is called in French By Words And By Paintings. By any kind of way, he wanted to tell his truth — tell what he heard, what he saw, what he lived,” says architect Yvon Chalm, who is president of The Vann Nath Friends Circle and previously catalogued the artist’s work.

“The Khmer Rouge wanted to have no clue, no picture, nothing — a tragedy with no words. He got involved in building the museum of genocide in Tuol Sleng to create images, because there were no images,” he adds.

New exhibition pays tribute to S-21 survivor artist Vann NathIt seems fitting that imagery has become a means to pay tribute to the late artist. As part of a new exhibition on display at the Bophana Centre in Phnom Penh, painters, sculptors, journalists and historians are remembering his life through art, poems and words. “The exhibition is trying to make a kaleidoscope of his personality, you can see all the facets,” says Chalm.

The result is a show that is full of impact, thought and emotion. Two stand-out works are Jim Mizerski’s duo of photo collages, made up of S-21 prisoner mug shots. They portray Vann Nath as a young prisoner, in a work called ‘Victim 1979’, and as an elderly free man, in ‘Witness 2010’.

“As a survivor, he was an artist and a face and a voice that spoke with first-hand experience for the thousands of victims that were forever silenced but whose faces are permanently linked to his,” Mizerski writes in a book accompanying the exhibition.

Other images show Vann Nath at work in his studio and explore his participation in the documentary S-21. “Each artist, or people who wrote text, tried to describe one side that they knew of him,” says Chalm.

At least two of the works are by Vann Nath himself. Donated by his family, they are the last images produced before his death. The two black and white etchings show an ancient tree growing out of a pile of skulls — evoking the concept of the passage of time.

For Vann, with time came the search for justice, as both Duch and then senior leaders of the regime were put on trial at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal in Phnom Penh. The painter testified as a witness, stating, according to journalist Anne-Laure Porée, that he would “not let the victims [be] carried away by the wind. I always will claim justice.”

Though Vann Nath died before he could see his jailer sentenced to life in prison on appeal in 2012, his legacy remains. A passage written by exhibitor and university professor Phoeung Kompheak reads: “Vann Nath, you are for me a voice, a voice of calm. And I have been hearing it since my birth: my father has the same voice as you. You are no longer with us, but your voice endures.”

Vann Nath Tribute runs at the Bophana Centre on Street 200 until Feb. 12. The artworks will then be moved to a gallery at 33B Street 169. A book accompanying the exhibition is available on request and costs $50.