Cambodia – The Memory Workshop

This exhibit at Maison Française and The Italian Academy features seventy works of visual arts (paintings, drawings, photographs) about the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge, made by the great contemporary artists Vann Nath and Séra (both survivors of the genocide), as well as works by emerging artists who were invited to artworks evoking the genocide.

The workshop is called “The Memory Worshop” because, as the title states all the images had to be drawn and painted by either the artists that had survived, or by accounts that were relayed to the artists, so that they could then create all of the pictures. A painful process for all, who had to re-live what had happened. A process which would bring up all the pain, hurt and suffering that lay within them.

Although everyone would always have these memories with them for the rest of their life’s and could not save the many people that had died, what they could do was show that they did not die in vain and that by showing these art works, their souls may find some peace. A workshop of a reminder of what everyone does not want to happen again and for the young people of Cambodia to learn about there history and what had come before they were born. Before these paintings were drawn there were very little imagery of the pain and suffering that had happened. There were only a few pictures that had been taken of the torture chambers and by the prison officers themselves.

When Pol Pot took over Cambodia in 1975, after five years of grueling civil war, he restarted the calendar, and so “Year Zero” refers to the onset of the brutal reign of the Khmer Rouge, the organization of which Pol Pot was the brutal leader.

Pol Pot was a Maoist Communist, and, changing the official name of Cambodia to Democratic Kampuchea, he instituted a regime of agrarian socialism. This brutal dictatorship was characterized by forced labor, starvation, and mass genocide. Somewhere between one and two million people died under the Khmer Rouge, roughly 21% of the population of the country.

Pol Pot emptied the cities, closed schools and factories, and executed intellectuals. So brutally opposed to education and technology even wristwatches were considered modern technology and possession was punishable by death. Other things that were banned were: Private property, religion, currency, family relationships, foraging for food, being a civil servant, being too weak or sick to work, speaking French—any of these were a capital offense. The guilty were taken to the “killing fields,” where they were often forced to dig their own graves, and buried there whether dead or alive.

Vann Nath

One of the survivors and featured artist was is called Vann Nath. One of the ways that the soldiers would determine whether you were in fact educated was to observe the people. They would look at peoples hands and if they were smooth they knew that they were clever. Another thing would be if people were wearing glasses they were captured, as if you were wearing glasses this meant that you could read. Vann Nath was an artist so feared he would be captured and killed. Vann Nath however would have a different fate to the other people. On learning that he was an artist he was told to get to work and create paintings and sculptures and statues of Pol Pot. This he did for many years. Little did Pol Pot or Vann Nath know at the time, but this artist would be influential in the coming years not only to tell people about what had happened but to also paint and draw in pictures the scenes,murders and torture that had happened to men, women and children of all ages.

Although Vann was an artist he was still a prisoner and received brutal treatment the same as the other prisoners. Documentary archives reveal that Vann’s name was on the execution list, signed by Duch, in 1978. At the last minute, Duch, who orchestrated the confessions and torture of the inmates, scribbled a note: “Spare the painter.” The last-minute reprieve came about because they needed someone to paint a portrait of their supreme leader, Pol Pot. Vann was among the seven or eight prisoners who narrowly escaped death by dint of their special skills and usefulness to the regime.

Genocide Museum

Vann Nath walked up to Huy who was chief of security in the war and stared him in the eye. He said, “You are Brother Huy aren’t you?” Huy turned and spoke to him in a gentle manner, pretending not to recognize him. Vann Nath told him who he was. As Huy began to lie, he challenged him aggressively on every point. Slowly, Vann Nath began to see what a weak and insignificant man Huy really was, the very personification of the so-called banality of evil.

He turned the conversation to his paintings in the museum, which Huy said he had seen. “Are they exaggerated?” Vann Nath asked.

“No, they are not exaggerated,” Huy said. “There were scenes more brutal than that.”

“Did you see the picture of the prison guards pulling a baby away from his mother? What did you and your men do with the babies?

“Uh, we took them out to kill them.”

Vann Nath shouted in shock: “You killed those babies? Oh my God!”

He had always thought they had spared the children. This overwhelmed even his worst nightmares about the Genocide. With nothing further to say, Vann Nath walked away, unsteady on his feet, and never saw Huy again.

Nath has relentlessly advocated for justice for the victims of Khmer Rouge atrocities through his writings, paintings, and interviews. From 2001 to 2002 Vann Nath worked intensively with Cambodian film-maker Rithy Panh in the making of the documentary “The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.” Vann Nath is extensively featured in the film in which Panh brought together former prisoners and guards and filmed them on site at the prison or at the killing fields known as Choeung Ek. With calm yet penetrating dignity, survivor Nath confronts and interrogates his former torturers, illuminating aspects of life at Tuol Sleng that had been previously unknown.

Many people have died and Vann and some of the other artists have also died now. One thing that remains is the pictures, these pictures tell the truth about what happened and will live forever.

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