Monday, December 15, 2008

Cambodian painter Svay Ken passed away at the age of 74

Phnom Penh (Cambodia). 11/12/2008. Funeral of Svay Ken. The painter passed away on Thursday at the age of 74. (Photo: John Vink/ Magnum)
Cambodian artist Svay Ken, 76, gives the final touches to his painting at his residence in Phnom Penh on March 10, 2008. Forced Through paint, sculpture, charcoal or pencil, Cambodian artists have converged to create works inspired by the rule of the Khmer Rouge in an unprecendented show that organisers hope will evolve into an artistic archive of the suffering inflicted by Cambodia's genocide. (Photo: AFP)
Svay Ken's painting about a scene from the KR era

Svay Ken: the end of the painted stories


By Stéphanie Gée
Ka-set in English
Click here to read the article in French
Click here to read the article in Khmer

To catch a glimpse of the modest artist, the easiest way used to be to attend exhibition inaugurations in Phnom Penh. His silhouette could often be spotted there, leaning on a walking stick. Despite his quiet nature, his bushy eyebrows and the discernible laughter in his eyes usually caused him to be somehow noticed. Wherever his steps led him, it was always with much reverence that the septuagenarian dean of Cambodian painters was welcomed. The artist Svay Ken is no more. He passed away on Thursday December 11th after a ten-year battle with an illness which forced him to remain secluded at home over the past four months. He leaves behind him en enduring legacy and an abundant work, interweaving the story of his life and the history of his homeland, depicted in a naïve and uncluttered, almost childish style which made his fame in the past decade.

Svay Ken's little art gallery, located near Wat Phnom in the Cambodian capital, somehow reflected the character of the artist: a simple place, quiet and welcoming, where paintings were piled up a-tumble, sometimes dusty. Visitors were free to dive into his world: portraits of things and people, scenes often representing everyday country life, episodes of the painter's own life or historical chronicles. Curious eyes could notice, here, the illustration of the country's struggle for independence at the beginning of the 1950s, or there, details of what life was like under the cruel Khmer Rouge regime.

Without his paintings, he could hardly express himself. Sometimes, in order to find the fluency of the countless anecdotes he liked to tell, he went to fetch an old painting and calmly continued recounting stories excavated from the past.

Svay Ken was born in 1933 and became a novice monk at the age of 14 following his parents' will not to see him enrolled by force by the Khmer Issarak, a movement led by peasants and a great many ruthless bandit who chose to take up arms and fight the French authorities occupying Cambodia at that time.

When Norodom Sihanouk formed the Chivapol army, pacifist troops demanding independence, Svay Ken, only twenty, spontaneously decided to serve in the militia. It is with emotion that he used to recount his enlistment, which gave way to some of the most beautiful memories of his life. When independence was finally proclaimed in 1953, everything became possible.

Svay Ken left his village and the Takeo province in 1955 to make his way to the capital and try his luck. He got a job as a waiter at the Hotel Royal, “a position I could never have aspired to before then, because of my social status of peasant”, he observed in an interview in 2003. After the Khmer Rouge regime, he resumed work at the Hotel Royal until he was asked to retire in 1993. That same year, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) packed up and left the country.

Then aged 60, he felt compelled to find a way to generate funding for his children's studies but also to remain active. This is when painting came into his life. His grandfather had trained his grandchildren with the hope to pass the torch, in vain, but Svay Ken eventually decided to take up painting and his brushes. Perfectly self-taught, he managed to have his first paintings hung in Phnom Penh in just a year.

His unique style caught the attention of many and over the years, he saw more and more foreigners coming to him and offer him to display his work. Much to his delight, his Cambodian clientèle began to emerge and buy his paintings which had until then been sought by foreigners mostly. His awkward drawing technique, which conferred to his oil paintings a certain poetic charm, somehow stood out in the ocean of paintings representing Angkor Wat, Apsaras and realistic bucolic scenes. Some described his work, massively reproduced by his peers, as “kitsch”. His art pieces soon came to be exported throughout Asia and faraway countries – he was chosen to represent Cambodia in the Fukuoka Art Trienniale in Japan in 1999 – bringing him celebrity and allowing him to be seen as the ambassador of contemporary Cambodian painting.

The man who saw as many as six political regimes in his lifetime liked to explain that putting down in painting the rites and traditions of an eternal Cambodia, threatened to disappear by the swift modernisation of society, was very dear to him. Inheritor and purveyor of memory, he applied himself to pass his knowledge on and was keen to see young generations learn about their past. Svay Ken was not the moralising type but rather truly in love with his home country, nourished by the moral philosophy of Buddhism.

“My father was passionate about painting, he worked unremittingly in his workshop and was the most patient and obliging man ever, he used to do good all around him. Words are not enough to describe the immensity of his kindness...”, Pisith, Svay Ken' son, described. His wish, today, would be to see foreigners and artists who appreciated his father organise a retrospective exhibit to honour his memory.

Before leaving this world, Svay Ken took the time to introduce his 25 year-old granddaughter to painting, to make sure that the family tradition would endure after him. On his deathbed, the artist expressed his thoughts to his relatives, declaring he was convinced that his granddaughter would follow in his footsteps.


Anonymous said...

Another highly talented Khmer who was like many others in Cambodia, ignored by Samdech Hun Sen's government has gone forever!

Rest in peace aunt Svay Ken. Wish you a prosperity in your next life!

Anonymous said...

It's alright to post the story of someone special, but KI you do not need to post picture of a dead body laying under a white fabric. It's very disturbing. It turns you off completely from reading it. It's too gruesome. It should be limited to just for a murder case.

Anonymous said...

Yes, please post a picture of a man when he was young and vibrant instead. We want to remember him this way and not his dead body under a solid white fabric. It makes us feeling sick and makes no sense.

Anonymous said...

There goes another victim of Ah notorious killer (Scam Rainxy)!

Anonymous said...

Ah fake siem 2.01 AM, get lost, will ya

Anonymous said...

Mr. Vann Monnyvan is the gold of Cambodia's architecture, but Hun Sen government chose to leave him idling. To me, he is always the pride of Cambodia when comes to Cambodia's best. But that's HUN SEN's style ruling... Mr. VAnn, you are always in our thoughts...

Anonymous said...

Cambodia don't give much attention and value to artists. They only care about doctors or lawyers and who has more authorities.

Anonymous said...

Without being told of Svay Ken's death, I felt his passing here in California. It makes me sad.
/ Don Lewis, Del Mar

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