From The Cambodia Daily, May 7, 1999

Local Artist Depicts Nation's History
on Canvas

By Victoria Stagg Elliott and Im Sophea


Pech Song's representation of the Khmer Rouge regime portrays the exodous of Phnom Penh in 1975 and the brutality of their entire regime. Pech Song's work are on display this weekend.

In the 1960s, artist Pech Song had it easy. He painted scenes of Phnom Penh life, Angkor Wat, apsaras and King Norodom Sihanouk.

"Everyone who was a government employee had a high salary and they bought art," he said. He also painted movie posters for the King's films.

Pech Song continued painting scenes of everyday life after the King was deposed, but when the Khmer Rouge came to power he was imprisoned in Siem Reap because they thought he was a government soldier. He still bears the scars on his feet, wrists and head from being shackled, but he convinced them—with a charcoal drawing on his cell wall of the Khmer Rouge victory—that he was not a soldier but a painter.

"It motivated and encouraged the soldiers," he said. It also got him out of prison. He spent the next four years painting Khmer Rouge propaganda banners and posters, including guides to different types of mosquitoes and social messages, that would be posted along the roadside.

Pech Song survived with his skills, and today the 52-year-old has created a five-picture series illustrating periods of Cambodian history over the past 30 years. The paintings go on display Saturday at Situations, a gallery, at 47 Street 178, Phnom Penh.

Pech Song created his series with the help of a muse—a white rabbit with bright red eyes who hops around the gallery. The paintings are huge, 2 by 1.5 meters, and as chaotic or as calm as the period they represent. The picture representing the 1960s is a single peaceful image of King Sihanouk digging while farmers are gathered round watching. The picture representing the Lon Nol period of 1970-1975 is fractured with images of protesting students at the National Assembly in one comer and the Japanese Friendship bridge in flames in another. The one representing the Khmer Rouge period is painted with dark shades of black and red. People evacuate Phnom Penh at gunpoint and statues of Buddha are headless. The painting of the Vietnamese occupation tells the story of their arrival, attempts to rebuild hospitals and schools and their eventual departure. During the 1980s, Pech Song painted communist heroes Lenin, Marx and Ho Chi Minn, and the government awarded him four certificates of appreciation.

In the 1990s, with the Vietnamese withdrawal and the arrival of UNTAC, he started painting King Sihanouk again.
"I'm not political" he stresses. His final painting in the series, of modern Cambodia, is calmer than the previous ones and the colors are lighter, but the scene it represents is of men disabled by land mines and women working as prostitutes, while portly businessmen make deals in front of their Land Rovers.

Pech Song's paintings are part of Situations' mission to encourage local artists to create original work. The gallery, across from the National Museum, is surrounded by shops that feature the work of artists who paint apsaras, Angkor Wat and scantily clad women over and over again.

"They didn't live during the Angkor period, but that's all they paint because it sells," Ingrid Muan, co-owner of the gallery, said. "We really hope that, if [Pech Song’s pointing] do sell, that other painters will think of doing contemporary scenes.

Pech Song expresses his admiration for his fellow painters but is concerned about the next generation of Cambodian artists. "I am worried about the students at the art school. They only know how to paint Angkor Wat and half-naked women.

Peeking behind Pech Song's colossal canvases are much smaller ones, a half-finished image of Angkor Wat tucked away here and a just-started paint-big of a scantily clad Cambodian woman carrying a jug over there. They sell for $70 each.

Everyone has to make a living.