Arts & Culture
Wed October 23, 2002
Spirit of Cambodia, A Tribute
Cambodian artist Vann Nath survived the Khmer Rouge regime by painting for his captors. Now he paints for himself and uses his brush to depict war and its aftermath.
By Kelly McEvers
Two exhibits in Providence feature works of Cambodian artists. One is the work of Cambodians, who live in Rhode Island and other parts of North America. The other showcases the works of artists who live in Cambodia.
Headlining the show is Vann Nath, a painter who lived through the brutal Khmer rouge regime of the 1970's. Vann Nath is one of seven people who survived a prison where 14,000 people were executed as enemies of the state.
Vann Nath was brought to the prison, after being accused of an undefined crime against the state in 1978. One month later he was released from shackles to begin painting portraits from a photograph. He later learned it was a photograph of Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot.
In 1979 the Vietnamese overthrew the Khmer rouge.
Vann Nath then went to work to paint more propaganda. This time, images of the torture he had heard in the night at the prison but never seen.
Only over this last decade did Vann Nath begin painting for himself. He left Cambodia for the first time to accompany his work to Providence.
While most of his paintings may at first appear pastoral, a closer look reveals an undercurrent of worry about the future.
Vann Nath says his memories are still vivid, and they make it difficult to be optimistic.
The show is called The Spirit of Cambodia, A Tribute. It's broken into two exhibits. Images by Vann Nath and other Cambodians are on display at Providence College through November 15.
Paintings by Cambodians living in North America, known as the Cambodian Diaspora, are on display at the Rhode Island Foundation through January 3.
Both exhibits were assembled by Ann Norton, who heads the Asia Studies Department at Providence College.
Norton notes the art from Cambodia focuses on the country's ancient history or on current themes, while the Diaspora artists are more likely to portray the horrors of the Kmer Rouge.
One artist is quite remarkable. He is the youngest artist In the show, and he has never been to Cambodia. He was born in the refugee camps and his two works in the Diaspora show are perhaps the strongest relating to the war, Norton said.
Another young artist in the Diaspora Exhibit was born in Cambodia. His family was captured by Khmer Rouge soldiers when he was eight. They escaped to Thailand and eventually settled in Rhode Island.
It wasn't until after he finished art school that Samnang Young returned to Cambodia to learn about Buddhism. There, he began to confront his family's past.
The paintings by Samnang Young depict ghoulish images of Khmer Rouge soldiers set on blood-red backgrounds. In one, there is a small, gray silhouette in western clothing who looks on.
That's supposed to me, thinking about the past. I'm present in there, but I'm no longer a child. For many years, I just didn't want to paint war images, because I thought I would be giving it life through images. Now it's coming out more slowly into these two paintings, said Samnang Young.
Soon after arriving in Rhode Island, Vann Nath viewed the paintings by Cambodians who live in North America. He said he is happy that painters are depicting the Khmer Rouge era. We all keep two boxes inside us, he said, one that deals with the past and one that thinks about the future. It's good to open the box of the past, Vann Nath said, but that won't make it disappear.