Classical dancer Om Yuvanna was 20 years old when the Khmer Rouge rolled their tanks and armored personnel carriers into Phnom Penh in April 1975.
Like other survivors, Yuvanna saw how the regime used the arts for propaganda, but has since seen how the arts can play an important role in the post-war healing process.
“I also do not want to be reminded of the past but it is important for the younger generation to know,” she said, speaking at a panel discussion at the 2019 Cambodia International Film Festival in Phnom Penh this month.
Now a traditional arts instructor at the Royal University of Fine Arts, Yuvanna, in her sixties, spoke about her personal experiences and the role of arts in the healing process.
“Our art is communicated in technical language. Back then, they would change the choreography or lyrics to promote propaganda,” Yuvanna said, referring to the Khmer Rouge’s use of the arts to nurture their propaganda efforts.
Artists were named among those targeted for execution by the Khmer Rouge with some 80 percent dying under the regime, according to an official estimate. Out of 190 dancers active in the royal ballet team in 1975, only 40 survived.
In a cozy hall at Phnom Penh’s Bophana Center, the panel -- made up of artists, civil society workers, and college students -– spoke about roles and power of arts and cultural production in the healing and reparation process.
“Art is the identity of our nation. It sets us apart from neighboring countries,” Yuvanna said. “As artists, it is our responsibility to maintain our identity and share it with the others.”
The panel discussion also marked the opening of an exhibition, “Four decades since the fall of the Khmer Rouge”, in which eleven paintings from artist Sang Nan, who also sat on the panel, are on display until March 22.
Known for his graphics and artistic involvement with renowned Cambodian film director Rithy Panh in the Oscar-nominated movie “The Missing Picture” and “Graves without a name,” Nan, 28, said he was inspired by the stories of the survivors from his family.
Nan was frustrated by a lack of exposure to Khmer Rouge history during his teenage years. So he chose to re-tell the stories about the suffering and the hopes of those who lived under the Khmer Rouge regime through his paintings.
“I think it is an important responsibility for us to share our knowledge and stories from one generation to another because it can serve as a lesson for the younger generation,” he said.
Nan said he was aware that it is not an easy task for artists to tell their story to Cambodian audiences through abstract arts, but he emphasized the importance of curiosity, which enables the younger audiences to understand the messages encoded in artworks.
“I hope that they [younger Cambodians] will be able to interpret the emotions behind my works. Sometimes, they see fear and sorrow from starvation, and possible execution,” he said.
“Each of my paintings has its own meaning,” he said. “My work usually represents both sorrow and hope.”
Meas Phidochampa, 56, said: “We should not confuse between individual history and social [collective] history. Just like jigsaw pieces, the stories of five million people are accumulated into one national history. We need both to further our understanding.”
Him Savy, a traditional musician, and composer said it was important for Cambodians to study their history.
"It enables them to know what their country and people have been through," she said. "When we artists produce art, it is not for ourselves, but for the sake of history.”