Please be warned, this post deals with upsetting subject matter.
Born into desperate poverty in provincial Cambodia at some point in the mid 1940s, Vann Nath would struggle to achieve his ambition of becoming an artist. Yet it is this hard-won training which would ultimately save his life while millions of his countrymen perished.
Despite working in factories from a young age, Nath was eventually able to enrol at an art school and went on to make a living as a sign painter. When the Khmer Rouge swept to power in the late 1970s, Vann Nath was one of the hundreds of thousands of innocent Cambodians confined in the government’s notorious secret jails, where inmates were subjected to extreme torture and execution.
Yet Nath would be one of the very few to survive. Recognising his talent, his jailers in the S-21 prison spared his life. In exchange he lived a hellish year listening to the screams of other prisoners while painting triumphant propaganda scenes and sculpting portraits of the regime’s despotic leader, Pol Pot. As a sign of his importance, he was allowed to sleep on the floor of the room where he painted, instead of lying shackled in a room full of prisoners.
When the Vietnamese forces entered the jail in 1979, Nath was one of only seven inmates who had survived. He would dedicate the rest of his life to painting, speaking and writing to keep alive the memory of the fellow prisons he was unable to help. In 1998 Nath published an illustrated account of the brutal conditions in the jail, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21. His graphic depictions would later be used as evidence in the trial of the prison chief, known as Duch. Many of his paintings now hang on the walls of his former prison, which has become the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Vann Nath passed away in 2011 but his legacy lives on, as one of the artists who played an important role in helping to restore Cambodia’s artistic traditions.
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