They say ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Cambodian born artist Bun Heang Ung’s work is an archetypal example of this truth. With every delicate stroke of Indian ink, Bun poured out his haunting memories of the Khmer Rouge regime onto paper for all to see.
Arriving in Australia in 1980 as a refugee who could not speak English, Bun 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 Bun’s drawings seem to be fairly innocuous black-and-white cartoons composed with meticulous detail. But when you look closely, 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.
“I spoke on behalf of the Cambodian people, to make sure that what happened to them throughout the Khmer Rouge period is never forgotten,” he says.
The Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. 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. Bun and his wife Phiny are some of the only survivors of their age from Cambodia.
Now, over 20 years later, Bun 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, with his drawings digitally preserved as a scholarly resource for future generations.
"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"
In support of Bun’s gift to the University two other generous donors came forward to financially contribute to the prosperity and safe keeping of the collection. One of the donors, Colin Neave AM, spent the first year of his law degree at ANU and feels a responsibility to give back to the University.
“When one is in a position to benefit an institution who has made an enormous contribution to your life, then a way to recognise that, as well as talking about it, is to make a gift,” he explains.
“I am very pleased that my gift has made it possible to bring this important, historically significant collection to a safe home where it can inspire students and researchers.”
As time passes and memories fade, Bun’s drawings will ensure that the atrocities that happened to the Cambodian people are never forgotten. With those memories preserved we can hope that humanity treasures this gift and learns from the past.