Renowned artist and Tuol Sleng survivor Vann Nath died on Monday 5 September and Hanuman would like to extend their condolences to his close family at this difficult time.
Vann Nath filming at Tuol Sleng
Vann Nath was one of just seven survivors to walk out of Tuol Sleng alive on 7 January 1979. Although more survivors have been found in the following years, Vann Nath spoke with passion and pain on behalf of all prisoners who passed through the gates of Tuol Sleng. Thanks to his famous paintings of torture scenes in the Khmer Rouge prison, he became the unofficial spokesperson for the suffering that took place there. Speaking after his death, his family said “Nath just left us. A big rain pours when he dies.”
Hanuman has been fortunate enough to work closely with him over the years. Our Executive Director Kulikar Sotho interviewed him on many occasions for television documentaries and features regarding his time in the prison and his views on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. He also spent time with visitors from many countries to share his memories and experiences during his time in the prison. During his illness with kidney disease in 2009, Hanuman sent a donation to assist with his medical treatment in Thailand. His death is a great loss to Cambodia. He was an ambassador for the victims of Tuol Sleng and a witness to genocide.
Hanuman Company Advisor Nick Ray interviewed him back in 2009 for the Lonely Planet guidebook and below is an excerpt:
“Vann Nath: Portrait of the artist Nick Ray
Vann Nath was born in Battambang in 1946 and took up painting as a teenager, finding work as a sign painter and artist for cinema posters. Like many Cambodians, his life was turned upside down by the Khmer Rouge takeover and he found himself evacuated to the countryside along with other urban Cambodians. On 7 January 1978, he was taken to S-21 prison, aged 32 years, and spent the next year living in hellish surrounds, as thousands perished around him.
As one of the only survivors of the notorious prison, the Vietnamese brought him back to S-21 from 1980-82 to paint the famous images we see today. He spent much of the subsequent decade enlisted in the Cambodian army, battling his former tormentors along the Thai border region.
“I only started to paint again after the 1993 election, as I felt more free to speak openly,” he says. “This is when I was discovered by the world and became famous for my museum paintings.”
I ask what it feels like to see Tuol Sleng as a tourist attraction today. “We must think of the souls of those who died there,” he laments. “These souls died without hope, without light, without a future. They had no life,” he continues, “so I paint my scenes to tell the world the stories of those who did not survive.”
He remembers a pledge he made back in 1978 when first incarcerated: “We were taken up to a holding room on the first floor,” he tells me. “We agreed that whoever survives would need to tell the families of the victims how they met their fate.” As one of the only survivors he is duty bound to tell the world what happened.
So how does it feel to return to the scene of such personal horrors? “The first time I went back was a real struggle, as everything looked the same as before,” he recalls. “I could hardly speak or move.”
We finish by talking about the Khmer Rouge tribunal for surviving leaders. Vann Nath has learnt about human rights in the years since his imprisonment, but it’s hard to accept as a victim. “As a person who represents thousands of dead prisoners, I am not sure the tribunal will deliver enough justice for the dead,” he muses. “Based on human rights it may be fair, but the Khmer Rouge was about human wrongs as well,” he says with an ironic smile.
“If we talk about human feeling, then we want more than this, but we must ask ourselves what is fair?” he considers. “If we demand too much justice then it becomes revenge. I just hope the court will deliver justice fairly,” he says with dignity.”
Lonely Planet Cambodia, 7th Edition“