CAMBODIA: THE LAND OF THE LEPER KING
paintings by Mark Halliley at Pictorem
In Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, “tourist sights” include the torture centre S-21, (from the time of Pol Pot’s murderous regime 1975-1979) in the premises of a suburban High School. In the former classrooms now cleaned of all blood and stench, you see row after row of photos of victims: 14-15,000 of them, photographed before they were tortured. Once they had “confessed”, they were dispatched by night in trucks to the countryside nearby. Today’s tourists often follow the same route, to the local Killing Fields execution-site of Choeung Ek. There, you see some 10,000 skulls with cracks and holes in them, piled high in a memorial, some arranged according to the implement used to smash them in- hammers, clubs, farming-tools. They were seldom shot, as firing was noisy, and bullets cost money.
In Cambodia, I also met some very remarkable people who lived through the worst excesses of the rule of Pol Pot. Like the artist Bou Meng, one of the survivors of S-21, spared as he produced a good likeness of Pol Pot. He now bears witness to Cambodia’s holocaust. Or, the teacher and Angkor guide Ponheary Ly, who as a girl survived one of Pol Pot’s murderous slave-labour camps. She now heads an internationally-acclaimed charity (www.theplf.org) that helps the poorest of the poor get an education, from primary school right through to graduation- helping to rebuild Cambodia.
Among the ancient temples of Angkor, is The Terrace of the Leper King: a clay mound, and beneath it, a narrow walkway, lined with row after row of smallish sandstone figures- gods and goddesses, dancers and angels, kings and protectors. Carved some 900 years ago, many are well-preserved. But many are cracked- some, battered and smashed. Some were never finished. All have outlasted mines, bombs, tanks, conquests, invasions, foreign occupation, famine, torture, mass extermination, switches of religion (Hinduism, Buddhism), the rise and fall of empires. They are all lepers, all kings. On top of the mound, is a large replica statue of a figure academics say is Yama, the Lord of Death. Local legend says it’s the Leper King, who ruled despite being consumed by his disease.
In these representational paintings of old carvings, I have tried to express something about survival and memory in modern Cambodia.
Mark Halliley www.markhallileyart.com Feb 1 2017