From Principal, December 1999
By Khalid Ali Taha
Self-portrait by Vann Nath.
An artist produces art that is a direct manifestation
of his or her experiences. Sometimes the experiences are so profound
that they dominate the themes and styles of the art produced. It's
been said that ifs difficult to shake the past and even more difficult
to create a future. Art is personal and introspective in character,
yet to reach a mass audience it must be universal in theme and direction.
Somehow there has to be a balance between art for art's sake and art
for economic gain.
Although preserving the art styles and techniques
of the past is vital for the survival of any culture, in Cambodia
today not enough emphasis is placed on representing contemporary Cambodian
Much too often Cambodian art is a direct copy of
a theme or subject from the past. Artists in Cambodia today are not
creating art but rather they are copying stroke for stroke the moods
and images of bygone days. This is partially due to the fact that
the economy of the times dictates the sacrifice of art for the basic
everyday needs of the artist. Artists in Cambodia must create art
that sells, after all this is the first and foremost priority for
any work. In art schools and studios, young Cambodians are being trained
to recreate, or copy the methods and images of the past to sell to
tourists and galleries where tourists go.
There are some artists that have moved on from the
traditional images and styles and are creating art that is the essence
of Cambodia today. Two artists that are moving forward with their
own ideas and styles are Phy Chan Than and Vann Nath.
Vann Nath's painting of the horror of
Tuol Sleng Prison.
Vann Nath is best known for his work as the 'prisoner
painter' at the infamous Tuol Sleng Prison (S21) in Phnom Penh. From
his start as a sign painter in Battambang in the 1960s to the present
Vann Nath has painted what he felt. The mood of each painting was
a reflection of the moods he was feeling and when one compares his
famous works from Tuol Sleng to his recent work, the difference is
"The painting of the man sitting under a tree
playing an instrument is a testament of the new direction I've taken
for a few years now. A lot of people are only interested in the type
of paintings I did in the past. In the 80s and 90s people from wealthier
countries came and wanted me to paint them a scene from Tuol Sleng.
Those were horrible in theme and unhappy, and you can see that. This
painting illustrates the happiness and simplicity that I remember
from Battambang. Today life's not really like that, but the painting
represents an ideal of what I wish it was like. My goal was to paint
it as a little childish and naive. I wanted to capture timelessness
as I felt it as a child," a reflective Vann Nath stated.
Scene of the Idyllic Life by Vann Nath.
Due to illness, Nath has not painted for over a year.
But as life is habit, he is a painter and if he could he would continue
to paint only what he wants to paint.
Another project he is working towards and dreams
someday of achieving is a senior citizen's cooperative in Battambang.
He explains, "I want to find people who are alone with no one
to take care of them. There are many people who have seen so much
fighting and felt so much pain. If they are old and unable to work
or take care of themselves, I want to provide a home for them to live
out their last days in peace and dignity. It will be a place of religious
freedom and everyone will be at peace. I want people to realize that
they aren't garbage to be thrown away and to die as a dog dies on
the street. I want a home where they can raise their spirits and find
Vann Nath claims he will never again paint the type
of paintings he did about S-21. Public reaction to his new artistic
direction doesn't concern him. Vann Nath says that he'll do what makes
him happy and doesn't think about what the public wants or thinks
of him. He also says that he doesn't care how people remember his
work or himself. "I want people to look at the Tuol Sleng paintings
and see them as important historically. They documented a time in
the history of our nation. If I'm remembered just for those paintings
then so be it," said Nath.
Phy Chan Than, is another famous painter that is
bravely walking the artistic road he created. Trained in traditional
Khmer painting at the School of Fine Arts in the early 80s, Phy worked
for the government painting three paintings a month for about a year.
He worked in factory-like conditions pumping out paintings for tourist
consumption. He earned little and was bored painting the traditional
Phy Chan Than standing in front of his
unfinished painting, 'Angkar'. You can see the finished
painting at Reyum Gallery.
His hard work paid off when he landed a scholarship
to the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest, Hungary. There he received
his M.F.A. in painting. Not only did he get a degree, he found much
more in Budapest, he found the artist within him.
"It was in Budapest that I really
began to create art. Before that I was just copying
other art. When I first arrived I was given a
project to paint whatever I wanted, so I copied some
famous paintings by the masters. My professors at
the academy were really disappointed. They told me
to go back to the drawing board and paint something
original, me, in my own style. That's when I
discovered the idea behind art. Art is something
created, not copied. Anyone who is painting or
drawing themes and styles of others is not creating
What I found was that I had my own style and that
was as valid as anyone else's style. It's my own expression and it's
one that is not really understood by my peers in Cambodia. When I
got back from Hungary in 1992 I began teaching at the Faculty of Plastic
Arts. My friends and ex-classmates didn't like the change in my painting
style. And to this day, my students are not very interested in innovation
and finding their own style. The students I teach mostly want to be
business people and not artists. They want to finish school with a
relatively easy degree and go on to other jobs not related to art.
To graduate from the faculty you have to be able to copy the art of
the past, not create art of your own merit. I don't see a lot of hope
for young artists because they have decided to sacrifice art for economics.
They think art is what people want to see," Chan Than explained.
Phy paints mostly ordinary people doing ordinary
things, but in his latest few paintings he has taken familiar themes
and painted abstract images of them in a display of light, color and
texture that has many people wanting to see more. These paintings
are provocative, stunning representations of his experiences under
Democratic Kampuchea rule.
His latest, and just recently finished painting is
titled 'Angkor', after the name of the hierarchy of the old regime.
He describes what he has painted, "I have here represented a
face-less winged vampire, sucking the life out of the people who it
has guardianship over. The tongue is licking the blood of the people.
In its hands are simple farm tools that were used to kill and maim
people. There are many symbols of the past and the message is clear
enough if people take a close look."
Both of these men are respected as artists because
they create and what they create is original and unique to them. Although
both artists have limited their painting time to take care of other
more pressing needs, they continue to be productive in their endeavors
and exemplify the adage that 'art is life'.
The work of Phy Chan Than and Vann Nath will be featured
in a group exhibition entitled "The Legacy of Absence: A Cambodian
Story", which will open at Reyum Gallery on January 11th. This
exhibition is part of a larger on-going Legacy Project, which hopes
to assemble work by artists from many of the countries that have suffered
man-made traumas during the course of the 20th century. Asked to ponder
and express the absences, which resulted from such terrible events,
a group of Cambodian artists have made new work, which will be featured
in this group exhibition.
Reyum is located directly across from the National
Museum at #47 Street 178. It is open everyday. For more information
please call 023-217149 or 012-806150