Over the past three weeks after long days in the studio, Saing Nan, a painter and alumnus of the Royal University of Fine Arts, has spent most of his evenings on his new work Woman and Memories, a striking portrait of a woman with her eyes closed.
The black cloth and krama around her neck signify that she is living under the Khmer Rouge, and etched into her face are images illustrating the story of her life after Year Zero, in which she is victimised, especially by forced marriage and rape.
The painting, which the 31-year-old artist described as “filled with endless pain and misery”, will be displayed along with the artwork of four other young Cambodian artists in a 20-day exhibition at Bophana Centre, which focuses on the harm suffered by men and women from the Khmer Rouge’s policy of forced marriage. It is part of Phka Sla Krom Angkar, a judicial reparations project focusing on forced marriages and sexual violence in Democratic Kampuchea.
Though none of them lived under the Khmer Rouge, Nan and the other artists were attracted to the subject because of an artist talk hosted last year by Sophiline Arts Ensemble about forced marriages. They watched classical dance and documentaries about the pain and trauma suffered by those who were forced to marry, and the consequences for those who refused.
According to Nan, the story depicted in a documentary about a married woman who was forced to marry a Khmer Rouge cadre while her husband was sent to an unknown place to work, influenced his work.
“After watching those, I felt the anguish of the victims who had to force themselves to wed those who they had no love for at all,” said Nan. “I feel we need something to tell that to today’s generation so that it will never happen again.”
Another artist, Chum Mab, 25, will exhibit his sculpture Red Recall, which is made of wire and shows a couple raising their arms to show “commitment to live together and reproduce” during a wedding ceremony organised by Khmer Rouge. He said he wanted to contribute something to immortalise the victims’ stories.
“I had not been through it, but I really feel the pain,” he said. “All of this was caused by the Khmer Rouge’s ridiculous, impractical plan, which did away with love and came up with marriage as a tool to produce babies and a labour force.”
Tieng Piseth, the project coordinator at Bophana Center, said the exhibition is not only to spread the message and stories of forced marriage and abuse, but also to motivate young artists to pursue the topic.
“All the five artists were born after 1979, and they have not been through it personally, but they have potential in arts,” he said. “We believe that after listening to the victims’ stories, they will . . . keep on spreading those stories to other Cambodian people in their generation.”
Cambodian Artists’ work on Forced Marriage under Khmer Rouge will be officially launched at Bophana Center on Friday at 6:30pm. It will be open to the public with free admission until January 31.