From the South China Morning Post, Tuesday, January 18, 2000

Artists inspire healing process

by Kay Johnson

Phnom Penh - When Cambodian artist Phy Chan Than was asked to paint horrors of the Khmer Rouge, he chose an abstract depiction of a kapok tree with a blood-red gash through the trunk. For Phy, the scene has special significance. In Khmer, the word for the kapok also means "mute". During the Khmer Rouge's brutal regime there was a saying: "If you want to live, plant a kapok tree." In other words, keep silent or die.

Twenty years later, Cambodian artists are breaking the silence. With its stark images of skulls and barbed wire, the "Legacy of Absence" exhibition comes as Cambodia moves to finally bring Khmer Rouge leaden before a court. The show's co-director, Ly Daravuth, said that just as Cambodia had never brought the Khmer Rouge to justice, neither had its people fully faced what happened. Almost everyone in the country lost at least one loved one under the Khmer Rouge, the ultra-Maoists who enslaved most of the population in vast farming collectives and executed dissenters. But despite their shared suffering, Mr Ly said most of the artwork had to be commissioned because few artists in Cambodia choose to depict the Khmer Rouge years.

"It's too painful for many people. It's too close," he said.

Yet the very silence that protected now threatens to do harm as Cambodia's younger generation grows up knowing little about the regime.

"There's this dilemma. It's too close still for many to talk about, but far enough away to allow us to forget too quickly," Mr Ly said. "We really think there should be a long process of mourning."

The show is part of an international Legacy project that encourages catharsis and healing through art, which then serves as a reminder of past mistakes. Similar shows are being held in such countries as Kosovo and Germany.