Originally published in The Asian Wall Street Journal.


From Propaganda to Catharsis: How Painting Saved Pech Song

Friday, June 4, 1999

By Daniel Lovering

PHNOM PENH — Painting saved Pech Song’s life. Imprisoned by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, the Cambodian artist convinced his captors that he was a painter not a soldier by drawing on the walls of his cell with charcoal from a nearby fireplace.

But that was not the end of Mr. Song’s torturous ordeal. The young artist was then forced to paint propaganda for Pol Pot’s genocidal regime–the same regime that murdered his parents, six of his nine siblings and some 1.7 million of his fellow Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.

Now, after years of painting “government-approved art,” Mr. Song is painting Cambodian history as he remembers it. “I want to show people the past,” he explains, “so we don’t have to experience it again.”

Mr. Song’s new paintings, currently on exhibit at Phnom Penh’s Situations Gallery, depict Cambodian life under five bloody regimes over the past 30 years. While the artist pulls no
punches with his subject matter–several of the paintings portray the brutal reality of life in Cambodia’s “killing fields”–the work is obviously influenced by the Cambodian brand of social realism that dominated Mr. Song’s early life.

He frequently falls back on propagandist techniques–montages, idealized images and other holdovers from his years painting Khmer Rouge posters.

But these techniques are no longer used to gloss over Cambodia’s war-torn history. Rather they are used to reveal the true Cambodia–both past and present–as Mr. Song has witnessed it.

“Democratic Kampuchea,” for example, portrays Pol Pot’s barbarous 1975 mass expulsion of Phnom Penh residents into the countryside, complete with roadside summary executions by the Khmer Rouge. Another painting, “Activities of Today (One Life Among Others),” captures the absurd juxtaposition of limbless landmine victims and flashy businessmen sharing the streets of today’s Phnom Penh.

While some local artist still express concern about stirring the ire of the government, Mr. Song is undeterred. “This isn’t about politics,” he says. “This is about reality. If somebody’s upset, I’ll take them to see everything I’ve painted–the prostitutes, the cyclo drivers. It’s real.”

Mr. Song, now 52, discovered his passion for painting as an adolescent growing up near Phnom Penh. When he was 14 he spent his afternoons watching local artists paint billboards at a nearby cinema, sometimes helping them to fill in large sections with colorful tempura paint.

By the time the Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, Mr. Song was married, working as an artist in Phnom Penh, and teaching a painting workshop at the Royal University of Fine Arts. Like
thousands of other Phnom Penh residents, he and his wife were forced out of the city. Fleeing the Khmer Rouge, they walked more than 200 kilometers to Siem Reap, a small town near Angkor Wat, then considered a safe haven from the horrors of Pol Pot’s army.

Mr. Song and his wife never made it to Siem Reap. Before they arrived, the Khmer Rouge through them both in prison, accusing Mr. Song of being a government soldier. While imprisoned, Mr. Song was beaten so intensely that the muscles in his torso were permanently damaged. For several months he was stripped naked and shackled to other prisoners, some of whom were eventually murdered.

Mr. Song convinced his Khmer captors that he was an artist by drawing on the walls of his cell with charcoal. Eventually, the soldiers stopped locking his shackles, and one day removed him from the prison altogether. Mr. Song and his wife were then sent to Battambang, where he was put to work churning out thousands of posters and billboards touting the victory of Cambodian communism. The threat of death was constant.

“They told me I had to paint a water wheel,” Mr. Song recalls, “or I would be killed. You would look at something for only a minute, then you would be forced to paint it.”

Mr. Song estimates that he has painted nearly 4,000 canvases since the end of the Khmer Rouge’s bloody reign in 1979. But it wasn’t until recently that he began confronting his country’s past–and his own. For years he devoted his artistic energy to the few paintings that were commercially viable in Cambodia–portraits and dreamy impressions of Angkor Wat and classical Khmer dancers for wealthy foreign tourists. But Mr. Song wanted more, and with the encouragement of the people at Situations Gallery, he agreed to go to work on his current exhibition.

Ingrid Muan, co-director of Situations, says she hopes his work will set an example for other Cambodian painters. “We asked him to paint these to show the students and the painters on the street that people do care about their own experiences,” she says. “They don’t necessarily have to just paint Angkor Wat for tourists.”

These days Mr. Song teaches a class at The Faculty of Plastic Arts and continues to paint tirelessly to support his family. His wife and three children also run a small bar out of his Phnom Penh studio at night to help pay the bills.

“I’m just a painter,” Mr. Song says. “I just paint what I remember. It’s not something I’m responsible for. Maybe if the people who lead the country start doing good things, there can be beautiful paintings of the next few decades.”

–From The Asian Wall Street Journal