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February 10, 2014

Ung Bun Heang, 1951/52-2014

imageUng Bun Heang, the Cambodian cartoonist who depicted his survival of the terrors of the Khmer Rouge rule in his native country during the late 1970s, died in Sydney on February 8. Heang became in recent years a chronicler of Cambodian politics with satirical takes so sharp they led to government intervention against the publication of his work on-line.

Bun was a 23-year-old art student when the Khmer Rouge took control -- you can see a surviving photo of him during his student days here. The political disruption forced his family to flee Phnom Penh and sent the cartoonist back to his home village, where he was put to service on various work units, eventually being forced into a labor camp. Over 30 of his extended family members were killed during this time period (his immediate family remaind miraculously intact). Ung married his wife Pliny in 1977 -- she would lose over 50 relatives including the vast majority of her immediate family during this same time period. The pair survived a series of setbacks, including the artist's hospitalization, before liberation in 1979. The artist briefly found work in the capital city as an animator, but eventually he and Pliny made their way to the Thai border and were accepted for resettlement to Australia.

The Ungs were initially situated in Brisbane, a welcome step-up from the refugee camp in which they had spent the previous six months. The drawings that would constitute his most famous series of cartoons, two-thirds of which were later published as The Murderous Revolution: Life & Death In Pol Pot's Kampuchea in 1985, had humble beginnings during this time period. The artist wanted to portray what he and his wife had suffered in the half-decade previous while it was still fresh in memory and wanted to communicate their story to those with whom they worked on resettlement but lacked the verbal skills in English to do so. The 90 drawings -- which were then given English captions -- were created that year and into 1981. The drawings themselves were later donated to the Australian National University.

Ung's artwork was performed in Indian ink on high quality paper that allowed the artist to make nuanced, detailed drawings -- the emotional impressions of the people involved are their most significant feature. Each drawing took an average of 12 hours to compete. The artist and his wife would talk through each depicted experience in order to capture as much as they could from their memories. The resulting 1985 boook was not only popular in its intial form but was bootlegged and passed around the communities were people had similar stories to tell. It was reprinted in 1986 and again in 1998.

In a joint statement in 2012 upon the donation of the art, the Ungs said, "We are very fortunate to have survived the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. We endured and witnessed many acts of violence. We were separated from our loved ones, our families and friends, we lost our sense of belonging and it was a constant struggle to keep our sanity. We suffered a great deal of pain and torment, and the physical and emotional scars remain with us today."

The artist eventually turned his attention back onto the country of his birth, and was a relentless critic of its corruption and abuses. In January 2011 his cartoons were part of a directed blockage of media by the Cambodian government, and his Sacravatoons site went dark.

The cause of death was complications due to a long-standing illness. Most reports have him at 61 years old, although one date of birth provided is 1951. He is survived by a son, Justin Ung, and I believe up to three other children.

posted 4:15 pm PST | Permalink

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