Written by Sam Rith and Cornelius Rahn
The Phnom Penh Post
The mysterious artist whose depictions of bare-breasted Apsara dancers and Khmer Rouge soldiers unleashed a public outrage has fought back in a series of pointed attacks on critics
AFTER generating a firestorm of criticism for depicting topless Apsara dancers and scantily-clad Khmer Rouge soldiers, the Khmer-American artist who calls himself Reahu lashed back at his detractors in a series of web postings.
"If this brings down the Khmer culture, then your Khmer culture is still under the Khmer Rouge," he wrote in a recent message posted on his website, reahu.net.
Reahu's nude images have struck a nerve with conservative Cambodians, prompting scathing messages on his website and government calls for an outright ban of his website.
Among the critics is noted Cambodian painter Vann Nath, one of the few survivors of Tuol Sleng prison who called the paintings of a bare-breasted female Khmer Rouge soldier disrespectful.
A controversial erotic graphic depiction of an female Khmer Rouge fighter. (Graphic by Reahu at Reahu.net)
"I am concerned because [Reahu] took the sadness of millions of Cambodian people who suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime and joked around with it like this," he said.
Ing Kantha Phavi, minister of Women's Affairs, said she has requested that the website be blocked in Cambodia, claiming that 70 percent to 80 percent of Cambodian women were offended by the paintings.
"At that time, if [people had been naked] in such a picture, they would have been killed by Khmer Rouge cadres," she said.
But the artist is standing defiant in the face of the public backlash.
"Please enlighten me: [How can] a picture destroy Khmer culture?" he challenged critics.
"Unless there is something wrong with the culture. If the culture is strong and you have confidence, you shouldn't worry," he wrote in response to often angry comments on his website.
"Judging from the complaints, I wonder how we as Khmer will be able to make it in the 21st Century. Please be open-minded, you must be able to see beyond the four walls surrounding your hut."
Youk Chhang, director of the Document Center of Cambodia, said that many artists expressed their anger at the Khmer Rouge through art.
"Artists use emotional resistance and provocative design, painting what was impossible in the regime in order to reflect their cruelty back at the former Khmer Rouge leaders," he said.
"This is like [artists] pointing an AK-47 into the mouths of former Khmer Rouge leaders."
Reahu's work has also attracted support from many viewers, who accused critics of ignorance of Cambodian art.
"All Apsara women on the walls of our temples reveal the beauty of Khmer women the same way," one person posted on the site. "Are Khmer saying that our Angkor artists were bad too?"
Another user suggested that critical comments should be kept on the website. "It will [show] the contrast between what is art and what is ignorance about art, history and culture."
On his Myspace.com profile, Reahu describes himself as a "pure-bred Khmer" and a college graduate from Chicago.