A New Teacher and Two Exhibitions: The Arts at Little Hearts

It was a chance encounter that led our new art teacher to Little Hearts. Bjorn and Net, our public affairs administrator, were exploring the outskirts of Phnom Penh one weekend afternoon when they drove past a small café with paintings hanging outside. Intrigued, they went in, ordered coffee and chatted with the owner and painter, Kun Sotha. Still only 35, Sotha is a graduate of the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture and has held several solo exhibitions of his work, both in Cambodia and abroad. It seemed like a stroke of extremely good luck, so Bjorn quickly asked whether he would like to teach art to Little Hearts’ talented kids. Though he had little experience teaching children, Sotha agreed immediately. He, too, was once an orphan, so he already knew what their educational needs must be, and he felt a duty to help them along on their artistic journey. Sometimes, the stars just line up…

On the first day, Sotha accepted the challenge of teaching a group of approximately ten youngsters who were so different in age and skill level. He immediately recognized that many of them had had extensive art training before, while others, like little Maya, were complete beginners. He divided them into skill level groups and set about coaching them individually while they all took on a similar task – painting a still life. Each kid, he realized, needed a different level of encouragement and a different focus on technique.

All in all, it was a productive and gratifying first run for both instructor and students. Sotha greatly enjoyed teaching such an eager and talented group of kids, which took him back to his own early efforts as an art student, while his pupils appreciated his great patience, clear instructions and passionate input. Even Maya, who as a beginner had to work hardest, beamed that she never wanted any art teacher other than Sotha after successfully completing her first assignment – a colourful bowl of fruit. In the next lesson, all the kids will tackle the most difficult type of painting: portraiture.

Sotha’s positive impact on Little Hearts has already gone beyond the classroom. Following his recommendation, the art students (accompanied by Bjorn and Net) attended the launch of a new book on painting at Silapak Trotchaek Pneik Art Gallery on March 14th. The new publication features 100 paintings by one of Cambodia’s most highly regarded modern painters, Vann Nath. Nath lived through the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and famously captured the horror of that period in his stark, provocative artworks. He was incarcerated in the notorious Tuol Sleng prison (also known as S-21), where over 20,000 people were held, interrogated, tortured and murdered. Only a handful survived, Nath among them. The prison’s infamous commander, Comrade Dutch, may have spared him because of his skill with the paintbrush – he was meant to paint propaganda images and portraits of the Khmer Rouge leader, Pol Pot.

Vann Nath took what he witnessed while he was a prisoner at S-21 and channelled his own suffering and that of others to create unique paintings imbued with painful honesty about Cambodia’s recent history. His work is dedicated to the next generation, in the hope that they may learn about the past and prepare for a better future where such atrocities are not repeated.

In addition to bearing witness through his art and commemorating those who had perished, Nath was involved in the creation of the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and appeared in Rithy Panh’s documentary about the prison, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine. He testified before the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, gave many speeches and interviews about his experiences, and wrote a memoir.

The launch event featured several of Nath’s works, including the last painting he executed shortly before his death in 2011, as well as works by other artists. One of Nath’s sons, Vann Channarong, was in attendance, along with Jean-Sien Kin, who edited the book after spending almost 12 years gathering information and photographs of Nath’s works, and Reaksmey Yean, the curator of the gallery.

The kids were visibly touched by Nath’s life story and paintings. ‘I’m really proud of him,’ said Ilay. ‘To see what he endured and how he turned it into art… we have so much to learn from his example.’

They were also inspired by the wide variety of paintings on show in the gallery, which showcases the work of many other artists. Sarem found one appliqué work made with pencil shavings especially noteworthy. ‘It made me realise that there are so many different kinds of visual art, so many possibilities,’ he mused.

Having seen the enthusiasm with which the kids attended the Vann Nath book launch, Tony arranged for them to be invited to another art opening two weeks later. This event took place at Royal Train Square, an exhibition and retail space inside Phnom Penh’s newly renovated train station. It was the launch of a program called Full Steam Ahead, a 14-month educational project to promote STEAM education by exhibiting 90 pieces of ‘live’ art created by Cambodian and international artists working with students from the Cambodian Children’s Fund (CCF).

The opening event saw the exhibition of the first Full Steam Ahead artwork, titled ‘Expressive Computations’. It focused on the interface between computing and art, between brushwork and digitally enhanced images. Carlo Santoro, a professor of art and architecture at the American University of Phnom Penh and the curator of the exhibit, welcomed Little Hearts’ young artists and encouraged them to explore all the exhibits carefully. Some were conceptually difficult to understand, the kids admitted, but the CCF students in attendance were more than happy to involve them and explain the purpose and meaning of the artwork. Encouraged by their CCF counterparts, some of our kids also participated in painting activities during the exhibition.

Meanwhile, Tony had a productive talk with Scott Neeson, the founder of CCF, which later led to an exchange of emails and a meeting to discuss closer cooperation between CCF and Little Hearts.

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