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Narath Tan: The Art of Survival

by Bruce Sharp

His studio is a single room in a worn brick and terra cotta building next to one of Chicago's "L" train stops. It is on the second floor -- above the liquor store, below the professional wrestling school -- behind an unmarked door. At first, conversation in the room stops each time the train rumbles past. But as Narath Tan tells his story, the outside world becomes more and more remote, and the trains seem to vanish.

Portrait of Narath Tan Inevitably, the first thing a visitor to Tan's studio notices is the large slab of intricately carved clay leaning on an easel in the corner of the room. The carving has split apart as the clay has dried; in the center, the body of a beautiful apsara -- a dancer -- is cracked and broken. The cracks are deliberate. "This," Tan explains, "is like my country, from 1975 to 1978."

Tan's country is Cambodia, and when he is asked about the past, he invariably begins his story on April 17, 1975. On that day, an eight-year civil war ended as Khmer Rouge guerillas captured Phnom Penh. Driven by a fanatical Maoist ideology, the Khmer Rouge embarked on a ruthless campaign to create a classless, agrarian society. They began by ordering the evacuation of all cities.

Tan, who was not yet 13 years old, lived with his family on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. His voice is calm as he recalls images from the Khmer Rouge years, weaving a tapestry of sadness and horror: Bloated corpses lining the roads leading out of the city. His father's disappearance. Children, slowly starving, toiling endlessly in the fields, surrounded by rice and fruit which they were forbidden to eat. A group of people, captured while trying to escape to Vietnam, executed with bayonets in front of the other villagers who were forced to chant, "We must kill them!" At times, as Narath recounts the atrocities, he describes them carefully, meticulously. At other times, he is quiet and pensive. Describing the death of his aunt and uncle, victims of disease, he pauses as he relates how he and his cousins dug a grave. Wild dogs, drawn by the smell of the bodies, howled from across the fields. Tan's word's paint pictures that are as vivid as his art: "And the moon just rising ... Very, very sad... Nobody come. Nobody come to see what happened," Tan says. "You die, okay, you die."

A hundred sorrows converge, cracks in the portrait of the apsara.

Robert Buono, an American artist whose studio is in the same building as Tan's, admires the evocative nature of Tan's work. "It brings out a whole different culture," he says. "It's like going to Cambodia and seeing the country." The countries of Southeast Asia are in fact very familiar to Buono. He served in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968, and he recently designed the Veteran's Memorial under construction in Lansing, Illinois. The two sometimes work together, with Buono helping Tan experiment with American materials for use with traditional Cambodian techniques; for example, casting molds in fiberglass rather than clay or concrete. Buono feels that he, too, is learning. "I want to know what he knows," Buono says. "His art is a form of religion. He's got a lot of control."

The control apparent in Tan's work stems from the same self- discipline that enabled Tan to survive the reign of the Khmer Rouge, a reign that was characterized by ceaseless work as well as violence. Tan was assigned different jobs at different times: planting rice, clearing forests, digging canals, building dikes. On one occasion he was among a group of people assigned to move a house to a new worksite. Rather than disassembling the simple bamboo-and-thatch structure so that it could be loaded onto a truck or oxcarts, the cadre ordered the workers to slide poles below the floor, then lift the entire building and carry it to its new location almost 30 miles away. No one dared question the order.

By late 1977, Khmer Rouge raids on Vietnamese villages had led to increasing tension along the countries' border. In 1978, Tan, who had been living in nearby Prey Veng province, was sent away to Pursat, in the west of the country.

Tan offers a succinct description of Pursat.

"Hell on the Earth," he says.

Executions were carried out almost daily In Pursat. Three of Tan's cousins were killed when they complained about the lack of food. One of Tan's brothers, weakened by malnutrition, was executed when he was unable to complete the work he had been assigned. By the end of the year, however, it was clear that the end of Khmer Rouge rule was near. In December, the Vietnamese launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia. They captured Phnom Penh in less than two weeks, and immediately installed a new government; then they began to push into the mountains in the north and west of the country, finally arriving in Tan's village in April.

Tan soon returned to Phnom Penh, and when the School of Fine Arts reopened in early 1980, he enrolled to study sculpture. At first, classes consisted primarily of days spent cleaning the previously abandoned buildings. Inside, students found three skeletal corpses, each with its hands tied behind its back.

Tan enjoyed school once classes began in earnest, and he soon found that he could make extra money by selling his work. Small "monkey heads" -- downsized papier-mache replicas of masks worn by Khmer dancers -- could bring 100 riels, about enough money to buy two small chickens.

Soon, however, Tan began to grow disillusioned with the new government. The communist propaganda preached in the school was uncomfortably reminiscent of Khmer Rouge teachings, and April 17 -- the day of the Khmer Rouge takeover -- was still celebrated as a national holiday.

In 1984, after befriending a man who was active in the resistance against the Vietnamese, Tan was accused of sympathizing with the guerillas, and he was threatened with arrest unless he informed on his friend. Instead, he decided to flee to Thailand. That night, he knelt before his mother and asked for her forgiveness as he told her what he planned to do. Then, with another friend from the art school, he forged a travel pass and made his way to the Thai-Cambodian border. They crossed into Thailand two days and made their way to Nong Samet refugee camp. Nong Samet was controlled by the KPNLF, one of the two noncommunist factions fighting the Phnom Penh government. Tan soon decided, however, that the guerillas were as brutal and corrupt as the government they opposed. Soldiers, he says, constantly robbed and harassed the camp's residents. "After I live there for a few days, I saw it's no good." A short time later, Tan managed to escape to Khao-I-Dang camp, which was administered by the United Nations. At Khao-I-Dang, Tan was interviewed by U.S. Immigration officials, and finally -- in 1988 -- he was granted political asylum in the U.S.

Now, sitting in his studio in Chicago, the past seems impossibly far away. Chicago has become his home; it is here that Tan met his wife, Noi Maliab, another of the estimated 2000 Cambodians living in the city -- and it is here that his son was born. He is well-known in the local Khmer community, and his studio space is provided by the Cambodian Association of Illinois. Tan makes his living in suburban Wood Dale, where he works as an electronics assembler. Most of his co-workers do not know of his artwork.

Most of Tan's works are traditional designs. His "charcoal paintings" are inspired by carvings from Khmer temples. The paintings are made by carving a form in clay. The form is moistened with water, and a sheet of paper is carefully pressed down until the paper follows the contours of the carving. Next, the raised areas of the paper are painted black. In Cambodia, the black coloring was usually derived from soot collected from an oily fire; but Tan now uses paint or ink.

While most of Tan's work will always be done in the traditional styles of Khmer art, he expresses an admiration for Western techniques as well. "The painting, the sculpture... it's very, very beautiful. I think I want to do the art of American style... I want to mix the American and Cambodian."

Some of Tan's work has already been featured in local galleries. In the future he hopes to reach a wider audience with his art. Officials in the local Cambodian community are hoping to arrange for a grant for Tan to teach his skills to younger Cambodians.

Like many refugees, Tan fears that, in the wake of decades of war and strife and dislocation, Khmer culture is in danger of extinction. He hopes that, when his own son is older, he will not neglect his heritage. Perhaps he will study Khmer dance, like the children who often practice across the hall from Tan's studio. Occasionally, when time permits, Tan walks across the hall to watch the children. They have just begun their classes, but if they lack training, their enthusiasm more than compensates. On their slight shoulders, they will carry the burden of the survival of Khmer art. Tan, too, carries the burden, but he never feels it. He has carried many.

-- Chicago, Illinois, 1992

Click here to view some samples of Narath Tan's work.

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