A collection of artworks has been donated to ANU to ensure the world never forgets the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, writes GEORGIA NIELSEN.
Cambodian-born artist Bun Heang Ung’s work is a perfect example of the saying ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Not being able to speak the language of his adopted home, Ung used his artistic talent to give voice to some of the worst atrocities committed against humanity. With delicate strokes of Indian ink, Ung poured his haunting memories of life under the notorious Khmer Rouge regime onto paper for all to see and remember. Now, thanks to the generosity of Ung and other donors, these important sketches will be preserved at ANU, permanently documenting one of the most devastating periods of recent history.
Arriving in Australia in 1980 as a refugee who could not speak English, Ung had a heavy burden to fulfil: a promise made to his wife and family to document the experiences and nightmares they had witnessed and endured. Each night for two years he drew, telling Cambodia’s story in a way that he did not have words to describe.
At first glance Ung’s drawings seem to be fairly innocuous black-and-white cartoons composed with meticulous detail. But when you look closer, the reality of what has been drawn sets in. Most striking is the suffering etched into his subjects’ faces. Each of his 90 drawings has its own story, but the common thread is the overwhelming humanity captured in his images – masses of people, brutally suffering together.
In drawing number 75 you see men crouching on the floor, their heads hanging low as they await execution. Number 80 depicts a mass of people being forcibly evacuated from their homes. The people look calm and resigned as they march away, creating a chilling contrast to the frantic scene depicted behind them; as the crowd leaves, desperate escapees are shot in the back by soldiers.
Each of Ung’s 90 drawings took a painstaking 12 hours to complete.
“Every night I drew I got a nightmare,” he says. “After that I felt so good because it was like therapy for me. I finally could let it all out.”
And while Ung drew from his own memories, he says he also borrowed some from his wife Phiny, friends and family.
“I combined all sorts of experiences in the same place but for different people; I tell a lot of their stories in my drawings. I’m the one that captured them, that’s all. I spoke on behalf of the Cambodian people, to make sure that what happened to them throughout the Khmer Rouge period is never forgotten.”
The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. Under the leadership of Pol Pot, the regime sought to establish a classless communist state, abolishing money, private property, free markets, religious practices, schooling, foreign clothing styles and traditional culture. Public schools, mosques, churches, universities, shops and government buildings were shut or turned into prisons, stables and re-education camps.
At the beginning of their reign, the Khmer Rouge arrested and killed thousands of members of the previous ¬government. In the years following, hundreds of thousands of intellectuals, professionals, members of minorities and ordinary citizens were also killed in a systematic campaign to eliminate those who were deemed unable to conform. While figures on the number of people who died during the Khmer Rouge’s rule are disputed, most estimates say between 1.4 million and 2.2 million lives were lost. Whole generations were eradicated.
Ung and Phiny are some of the only survivors of their age from Cambodia. The story of their survival is a remarkable one which hinges on Ung’s ability to draw. Ung was born into a prosperous middle-class family. From a young age, despite his family’s disapproval, he wanted to become an artist.
“When I started fine arts, my uncles blamed my father for allowing it. They said I should follow a proper career. But when Pol Pot came, they were always being chased by the Khmer Rouge; their lives were always under threat. I’m sure that if I had become a doctor or an engineer, as they wanted, that I would never have survived.”
Ung’s ability to draw was his salvation, but it soon turned into his potential undoing. In 1979, he found himself working for the new Vietnamese-controlled government.
Ung had been given the task of drawing cartoons for animated propaganda films that heralded the kindness of a Vietnam that had ‘liberated’ Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge. Before Pol Pot’s victory in 1975, Ung had worked for five years as a political cartoonist for a leading independent Phnom Penh newspaper and had developed a habit, born from a cartoonist’s nature to humorously exaggerate, of drawing Vietnamese with oversized front teeth. Unfortunately, Ung was unable to suppress this tendency when drawing for the propaganda films and was accused of deliberately poking fun at Cambodia’s new leaders. The charges against him were serious; imprisonment and deportation to a re-education camp seemed inevitable.
But the skill that had put him in danger would again come to his aid. Ung used his drawing ability to forge official travel papers that enabled him and his family to travel freely into the countryside where they could escape into neighbouring Thailand. After six months in a Thai refugee camp, he travelled with Phiny, who was six months pregnant, and their 10-month-old daughter, Chan Kreusna, to Australia.
Now, over 20 years later, Ung has donated 88 of his drawings to the University’s rare books and manuscripts special collection in the Menzies Asia Pacific Library. His gift to ANU is a valued addition to the University’s existing resources and will be available to local and international scholars and researchers. In support of Ung’s gift to the University, two other generous donors came forward to contribute to the safekeeping of the collection.
“Knowing that I would not be able to redo them, I held them very dear to me, but I consider that they belong to mankind, not for my private possession, and so I wanted to find them a safe and permanent home,” explains Ung.
“In making this gift, my wife and I feel that we have fulfilled our duty to bear witness to the catastrophic history of the Khmer Rouge.”
Ung also points out why he has gifted his drawings to a university in Australia, rather than taking them home to his people.
“They [Cambodia] say they are a democratic country, but they are not a democracy. You look at them, the Prime Minister and the people high up in the country, are all Khmer Rouge. The Cambodian Government has blocked my website so that no one can see my drawings. My drawings would not be safe in Cambodia. They must stay here. In a country which is truly free. I can say that because I know what it is like to not have freedom.
“By gifting this art to ANU, I am so happy. My dream came true – to share these drawings with mankind around the world to let them know how sad the experience in Cambodia was. I don’t ever want people to have to endure that suffering again. That’s why I drew these pictures and that is why I have donated them to the University.”
As time passes and memories fade, Ung’s drawings will ensure that the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are never forgotten.