What: Kim Hak – Alive
Where & when: Objectspace, Saturday, June 1 – Sunday, July 21
A pair of scissors, a watch, a cooking pot: they are the humblest of household objects but behind each is a story of survival, endurance and, sometimes, sheer luck.
Just talk with Kuy Bun Rith who, sitting in his South Auckland home, is watched over by photos of his family: his wife, five children and nine grandchildren. They've had a good life in New Zealand, he says, but he doesn't often share memories of his native Cambodia.
"I had a long journey for my life to come to New Zealand but sometimes I don't want to talk about that because, after the war and the killing fields, I find it a little bit emotional ..."
Now, though, Kuy, a nurse, is sharing chapters from his story. He is one of 14 Cambodian New Zealanders from 12 families whose personal possessions have been photographed for the exhibition, Alive.
It marks the 40th anniversary of war and genocide in Cambodia that left up to three million – a quarter of its population – dead. Award-winning photographer Kim Hak, from Battambang City, Cambodia, travelled here last year to photograph objects – some everyday exemplars of domesticity, others treasured photographs and still others tools of trade – that survivors of the conflict left their country with.
There's a battered soup pot and lid gifted by a friend in a refugee camp that was later filled with clothes; a glamorous portrait from the 70s of a young woman, her hair coiffed, lips painted red, that was printed from a closely held and hidden negative, and a lighter made from metal parts scavenged from broken down vehicles and bicycles on the road from Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
Kuy's contributions are a pair of surgical scissors and a watch. On April 16, 1975, he was finishing nightshift at the Cambodia Russian Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh when armed Khmer Rouge soldiers stormed the hospital and ordered all medical staff to abandon their patients and leave.
He went immediately to his family home, threw away his hospital identity cards and, later that day, left with his parents to go to his mother's hometown. Kuy carried in a bag of rice some medicines and equipment, including surgical scissors.
The scissors have had a long journey through war, the Khmer Rouge atrocities, border camps, refugee centres and finally to Auckland via Dunedin; the watch marked a turning point in his family's fortunes.
NZ artist highlights the absences in our presence
Kuy recalls the end of the genocide when he, his wife and one daughter had passed through many refugee camps, living unofficially at each one, often without adequate food. He says the family had lost everything except hope, which was rewarded in 1985 when they were assisted by the United Nations to the Malaysian island camp of Pulau Bidong. Here, they were able to plant herbs to sell; in 1988, having saved money from selling basil, he was able to afford a watch.
He says the watch isn't just a souvenir, but a memento of trauma drawing to a close when the family was able to move to New Zealand. Kuy may not have survived the conflict had he owned the watch earlier; he says having a watch marked one out as perhaps being urban and well-off – things that could get you executed in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge.
Kim grew up listening to his parents and extended family sharing memories about these dark days when, from 1975-79, the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, sought to create an agrarian socialist society.
To do so, the government forcibly removed people from urban to rural areas, putting them to work on collective farms with limited food, shelter, clothing and medical supplies. Those who resisted or who were viewed as enemies of the state were killed; malnutrition and illness claimed the lives of many more giving rise to the term the "killing fields".
Kim's own family kept a kettle and, growing up, he wondered why, when the kettle was battered and sometimes in need of patching up, that they kept it.
"I started to have a conversation and ask my own family, ask my brother, sister and parents who lived through the Khmer Rouge and the story came up from that," he says. "When they left the city, they needed to carry along with them something that they could cook with.
"The story goes that my family fed chickens but they could not eat the chickens; one night my father was very sick and weak so my mother, wanting to provide extra food for him, stole a chicken and pretended to boil water but she made a broth in the kettle for him. He wouldn't eat it because he was afraid to be killed … An elderly man had stolen and boiled an egg; he was caught, taken away and never seen again."
Kim says Alive started from his own family's memories but, with those who lived through the genocide getting older, he expanded the project to ensure the memories of living witnesses are shared.
"War breaks things to pieces, not only the landscapes of a country, but also humanity. I have been trying to collect all of these broken pieces of memories to put them back together."
Kim Paton, director of Objectspace, says the work gives an insight in the culture of a refugee community living in New Zealand and shows how objects can become the lens for human experience.
* Alive tours to the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh in August; Kim Hak's visit to New Zealand and the Alive exhibition are supported by Rei Foundation.