Skip to content
Close this search box.
A photo of a painting by Vann Nath. The painting is of a starved prisoner sitting in a jail cell. His ribs are showing and his ankle is shackled to the wall.

Daily Helping for November 28th, 2022 – Vann Nath

Everyone told me that when I visited Cambodia, I had to visit the Killing Fields and the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. So I did. And even though I knew it was going to be an intense day, I was in no way prepared for the experience. I thought I knew the depths of the evil humans are capable of, but I was wrong. What happened in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979 was evil beyond my comprehension. Which is why I now agree with what people told me before my trip to Cambodia. Everyone should see these sites. Everyone should know what we’re capable of. Because in knowing and understanding it, hopefully we can prevent it from happening again.

That was the motivation behind a series of paintings at the genocide museum, located in the former S-21 prison. Vann Nath was one of only seven adults who survived the prison. He was an artist, and it was because of his artistic skills that his life was spared. Instead of being executed, he was put to work creating portraits of Pol Pot. But he still experienced and bore witness to the horrors of S-21. After Pol Pot’s regime was defeated, Nath spent years working to revive the arts in Cambodia.

Vann Nath was also a vocal advocate seeking justice for the victims of the Khmer Rouge regime. As part of his activism, he created a series of paintings depicting the torture and experiences of the prisoners at S-21. These paintings are now on display at the museum, and they are hauntingly and horrifyingly beautiful. There’s a reason why artists are so often targeted by dictators and authoritarian regimes. They know the power of art and its unique ability to bear witness to history. I know I will never forget the paintings of Vann Nath and the images they contain. They are a record of a history that is hard to bear but necessary to remember.

When asked why he chose to paint about life in S-21, Vann Nath replied, “So history wouldn’t repeat itself.” I can only hope that one day we’ll come through for him on that.

Suggestions for artists I should check out? Please contact me with your ideas. I hope you enjoyed your daily helping of art!