Cambodian Artists Capture Survivor Memories in Australian Show

From the very start of the project in 2013, the idea behind “Jorng Jam” (“Remember”) has been to collect people’s memories of the Khmer Rouge regime and its aftermath, then ask Cambodian artists to interpret them.

The first phase of the project concluded in an exhibition at the Bophana Center in January 2014. The second phase, entitled “Jorng Jam II,” has also led to an exhibition that opened Friday night in Logan, a small city with a large Cambodian community near Brisbane in Australia. 

Choun Ponh poses with oranges, a fruit that nearly cost her life. (Neak Sophal)
Choun Ponh poses with oranges, a fruit that nearly cost her life. (Neak Sophal)

Held at the Logan Art Gallery, the show is the conclusion of six weeks of intense work during which four Cambodians—artist Kong Vollak, filmmaker Neang Kavich, and photographers Kim Hak and Neak Sophal—met with survivors of the Khmer Rouge regime in Logan to listen to their stories.

The four Cambodians had no difficulty engaging people in discussion, Ms. Sophal said. “They are much more open than people in Cambodia to talk about the Khmer Rouge.”

Ms. Sophal took portraits of the people they interviewed, featuring them with elements that reflected crucial moments in their lives. For instance, Choun Ponh is shown with oranges. She came close to being killed when Khmer Rouge guards caught her with oranges that no one was allowed to pick.

Kim Hak continued his series begun in Cambodia featuring objects that people dared to keep during the regime even though personal possessions were forbidden. In the case of people in Lo­gan, this meant objects that they not only kept hidden during the Pol Pot regime, but then brought to refugee camps and all the way to Australia. “My idea has been to follow the timeline of their history,” he said. He has documented objects including a medallion of the Buddha, a coconut scraper and even an ax.

Neang Kavich focused on one Cambodian woman, Lim Vy, following her for more than a week and making a short video about her.

In the early 1980s, Ms. Vy fled to Thailand and took refuge at the Khao I Dang refugee camp, which was under U.N. supervision.

Having no official refugee papers, she feared being expelled, beaten by Thai soldiers, or caught in the battles between Cambodian factions along the Thai-Cambodia border. So for one whole year, two families took refuge in a one-square-meter underground hideout from 5:30 p.m. to 2 a.m.—six people with one bamboo pipe for air—until the camp guards had finished their rounds.

Ms. Vy eventually got her pap­ers and immigrated to Au­stralia. She now works in a factory and runs a fruit and vegetable stall on weekends.

As for Kong Vollak, he created an installation with sketches, clay and transparent tape reflecting the journey of all the Cambodians they met in Logan.

Space being limited at the gallery, his installation is a work in progress whose full version will be displayed when the exhibition is held in Phnom Penh next year, said Pip Kelly, a documentary filmmaker and the curator of Jorng Jam I and II.

The monthlong exhibition also includes Logan residents’ photos from the 1970s and 1980s that they managed to carry throughout their journeys, and texts on their life stories in English and Khmer.

The project has given the children of Cambodians who immigrated to Australia the opportunity to hear details of their parents’ lives they had never heard. “Some of them cried during the interviews,” Mr. Vollak said.

“This project is very important for the young generation who want to learn, to know, to research the past,” he said. By doing this, he added, “They can create a better future.”

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