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Exhibition Curated by Soko Phay-Vakalis and Pierre Bayard

Partnering with the Season of Cambodia Festival in New York, Columbia University’s Maison Française, Italian Academy, and School of the Arts, along with the University of Paris 8 and Rutgers University, present Cambodia, The Memory Workshop, an exhibition of paintings, drawings and photographs by the great contemporary artists Vann Nath and Séra (both survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide), and works by twelve emerging Cambodian artists produced in “memory workshops” held between 2008 and 2012 in Phnom Penh. Curated by Soko Phay-Vakalis and Pierre Bayard (both of the University of Paris 8), the exhibition examines the crucial role of artistic expression in collective memory and highlights the dynamism and strength of three generations of Cambodian artists. The exhibition opens on Wednesday, April 10 and remains open through Saturday, May 4.

Soko Phay-Vakalis notes that the mass murders that killed a quarter of the country’s population also aimed to destroy Cambodia’s visual and cultural heritage. The slaughter has been “so effectively erased in Cambodia that the majority of its perpetrators have gone unpunished and the youths of today know nothing of the genocide that caused almost two million deaths between April 17, 1975, and January 7, 1979.” Pierre Bayard and Soko Phay-Vakalis refer to a concept coined by Columbia Professor Marianne Hirsch, “postmemory,” which contends that the aftermath of mass murder is felt not only by the victims and survivors, but also by their descendants, who suffer the psychological effects of trauma that they didn’t themselves experience and may have no framework for comprehending. It was in this context that Phay-Vakalis organized the “memory workshops” at the Bophana Center’s archives in Phnom Penh, in which master artists Vann Nath and Séra supervised young Cambodian artists in researching one of the darkest chapters of the country’s history in order to provide visual images that were erased from the public record. Phay-Vakalis notes “even today, some young Cambodians refuse to believe that a mass murder took place. They demand to ‘see’ the images so they can ‘believe.’” The goal of the memory workshops, however, is “not to seek proof – in the legal sense – of the genocide of the Khmer Rouge, but to consider creation as a means of feeling a kind of intelligibility of history and creating a symbolic place for the dead within the community of the living.”


Soko Phay-Vakalis is Associate Professor of Art History and Theory at the University of Paris 8. She has written several articles and edited many multi-author volumes on the mirror in contemporary art and the link between art and mass crimes. She has also curated several exhibitions, including Beyond Narcissus (USA, 2005) and The Memory Workshops (Cambodia, 2009-10 and France 2010-11). Her most recent published works are Cambodia: The Memory Workshop (Ed) (Sonleuk Thmey Publishing, 2010), and Cambodge, le génocide effacé (with Pierre Bayard; Cécile Defaut, 2013).

Pierre Bayard is professor of French Literature at the University of Paris 8 and member of the Institut Universitaire de France and a psychoanalyst. He is the author of numerous essays on literature including Who Killed Roger Ackroyd? (New Press, 2000); How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (Bloomsbury Press, 2007) and Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), translated into over thirty languages, and the editor of several contributed volumes on mass murders. His most recently published work is Aurais-je été résistant ou bourreau? (Minuit, 2013).

 Vann Nath was born in Cambodia in 1946 and passed away there in September 2011. He was one of only seven survivors of Tuol Sleng, the former high school transformed into an extermination camp by the Khmer Rouge and renamed S-21. He owed his survival to his artistic talent, having been spared execution by Duch in order to paint portraits of Pol Pot. He continued to paint after regaining his freedom on January 7, 1979, this time to keep the memory of the genocide alive. His works are the most famous of all those created by first-hand witnesses. From his release in 1979 until his death, he unceasingly denounced genocidal ideology through his paintings and testimonials (A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21, White Lotus, 1998), which have been translated into several languages.

Séra was born in Phnom Penh in 1961 to a Cambodian father and a French mother. They were forced into exile in France when the Khmer Rouge came to power in April 1975. He has unceasingly explored the topoi of grief-infused memories and Cambodian history through his various artistic activities (drawing, painting, and the graphic arts). In addition to his teaching duties at Paris I University, he has participated in several exhibitions in both France and Cambodia, and published more than twenty graphic novels, including Impasse et Rouge (Albin Michel, 2003), L’Eau et la Terre (Delcourt, 2005), Lendemains de Cendres (Delcourt, 2007), Mon Frère, le Fou (Futuropolis, 2009), and Flic (Casterman, 2012).

The Maison Française

The Columbia Maison Francaise has played a vital role in fostering intellectual and cultural exchange between France, the United States and the French-speaking world since 1913, hosting a variety of events including lectures, conferences, film screenings, exhibits, and special events.

The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America

Founded in 1991 on the basis of an agreement between Columbia University and the Republic of Italy, the Academy sponsors advanced research in all areas related to Italian history, science and society, presents distinguished examples of Italian culture and promotes academic exchange at the highest level.

Columbia University School of the Arts

Columbia University School of the Arts awards the Master of Fine Arts degree in Film, Theatre, Visual Arts and Writing and the Master of Arts degree in Film Studies. The School is a thriving, diverse community of artists from around the world with talent, vision and commitment. The faculty is composed of acclaimed and internationally renowned artists, film and theatre directors, writers of poetry, fiction and nonfiction, playwrights, producers, critics and scholars. Every year the School of the Arts presents exciting and innovative programs for the public including performances, exhibitions, screenings, symposia, a film festival and numerous lectures, readings, panel discussions and talks with artists, writers, critics and scholars. For more information, visit

Two locations of exhibit:

Columbia Maison Francaise, East Gallery, Buell Hall

Campus entrance at Broadway and 116th st.

Works by Vann Nath and Séra

Generally open Mondays-Fridays, 12-5:30 p.m., plus first and last Saturdays (April 13 and May 4, 12-5:30 p.m.)

The Italian Academy for Advanced Studies

1161 Amsterdam Avenue (south of 118th Street)

Drawings by Séra and works by 12 young Cambodian Artists: Bor Hak, Both Sonrin, Chea Sereyroth, Chin Borey, Kong Channa, Kun Sotha, Long Raksmei, Nov Cheanick, Pen Robit, Lim Sokchanlina, Tith Kanitha and Tes Vannorng

Gallery hours at Italian Academy: Monday–Friday: 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.

Primary Contact at Columbia University: Shanny Peer, Director, Columbia Maison Française; Tel: 212 854-4482; e-mail:

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