From Principal, December 1999

Artistic Freedom

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 art forms.

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 remarkable.

"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 peace."

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 themes.


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 art.

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