Remembering Cambodia’s killing fields
“I cannot forget what happened to me and my family,” Pean Peuv said. His paintings currently line the walls of the gallery at the Central Library in Greensboro, presented by the Asolare Fine Arts Foundation. His art is humbling. He brings the horror of Cambodia’s killing fields (1975–’79) to life in his work.
The gallery doesn’t have any tear-jerking music to set the mood, no blackout curtains over the large window to keep the sun out and no spotlights highlighting each individual painting. His work speaks for itself. Each piece shows Peuv’s angst, expresses his struggle and, somehow, sounds his cries. The emotion lays above the paint like oil sits above water.
Peuv was 11 years old when the Khmer Rouge took him and his family into the killing fields, along with millions of Cambodians suspected to be connected with the country’s former government, professions, intellectuals, minorities and religious leaders. More than one quarter of the Cambodian population died from execution, starvation or sickness during these years of terror.
Eleven is old enough to remember, but is it old enough to understand? Peuv drew pictures of the terror that surrounded him in the killing fields whenever he was able. Luckily, he survived the killing fields, but most of family and friends did not. He watched this genocide unfold firsthand, permanently documenting every image in his mind and replaying it like a slideshow for years to come.
Peuv enrolled in art school at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 1981, two years after the end of Pol Pot’s regime. He graduated in 1987 and a few years later became a teacher at the University. He started working at the Ministry of Art and Culture in 1989 and received an MFA from CUP University in Phnom Penh in 2008.
Peuv didn’t paint about his experience in the killing fields until a few years ago because the memories were too painful to relive. He was finally able to revisit the drawings from his childhood and paint the scenes, both from his sketches and from his memory.
His paintings represent the killing fields through the eyes of a child. He shows people working, hungry, shirtless and shoeless. Everyone is depicted as sad and labored, gaunt and fearful, forced to work to the end of his limits. Soldiers with rifles are standing guard, assuring no one rests or gets lazy while on the job. One image shows a soldier beating someone with the back of his rifle, while the rest of the people continue moving along, unable to help and unwilling to lose their lives this soon by acting otherwise. Another painting shows a painting of Peuv’s older sister holding their youngest brother in her arms. Her face is distraught, worried and protective. She is cradling the baby while he sleeps, and their oldest brother looks on in the background, watching with helplessness and hopelessness in his eyes.
Peuv’s Cambodian killing fields collection just recently made its way to the United States for the first time, brought over by one of his students from Royal University, Soknang Chea. The collection was first exhibited in Winston-Salem, then Graham and now Greensboro. Chea brought the paintings here in hopes of helping to share Cambodian art with the world. The Asolare Fine Arts Foundation contacted Chea and they worked together to get Peuv’s work ready for display.
Peuv now lives in Siem Reap in Cambodia, working at the Ministry of Art and Culture and teaching art classes for disabled students through a nonprofit organization. He has a studio and small gallery in Cambodia called the Khmer Artist Gallery near the Angkor Wat Temple.
Pean Peuv’s Cambodian Killing Fields exhibit runs through Dec. 2012 at the Greensboro Public Library; 219 N.Church St., Greensboro; For purchasing information, contact John Chapman with the Asolare Fine Arts Foundation; 336.596.1035; firstname.lastname@example.org.