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Blues with a Brush

By: John Weeks Posted: September-07-2008 in
Svay Ken Self Portrait
John Weeks

John Weeks takes a look at the 'Painted Stories' of Svay Ken.

Born in 1933, it would be difficult to even summarize all the events Svay Ken has lived through, but fortunately the prolific painter is busily creating an extensive visual autobiography on a daily basis. Unlike most artists, he began painting at the age of 60, with no formal training. His prior roles included work as a simple laborer, a farmer and a long stint at Le Royale; returning after the revolution when the hotel was called 'The Samaki' - 'solidarity' - in the 1980s.

The hotel was a central meeting point for the small overseas aid community at the time. After being told he was of retirement age, Svay Ken looked for a new way to support his family, and settled on painting. "It was difficult at the beginning," he recollects. "I didn't know how to mix the colors." Foreign friends encouraged his new works that didn't depict the standard images of Angkor Wat or apsara dancers. He soon opened up a small gallery near Wat Phnom on 'French Street' that remains to this day - his family running a pharmacy from one part of the shop, and Svay Ken selling paintings from the other.

Svay Ken's subject matter is the raw fabric of daily Cambodian life, almost always drawn from memory: objects, people, events. Untrained artists are often considered creators of 'naïve art', but these works are painted by a man fully grounded in the world, who has survived years of war, and raised a family. In the tradition of country or blues music reflecting the triumphs and tragedies of everyday life, Svay Ken simply tells it like it is.

His working-class work ethic produced numerous paintings, which found a growing market for his efforts. With the help of Reyum Gallery, he began to gain national and international recognition, eventually representing Cambodia in the 1999 Fukuoka Art Trienniale. After his wife Tith Yun passed away, he spent a year creating 128 images depicting their years together from 1941 to 2000.

The resulting exhibition 'Painted Stories', was highly praised and also collected as a book. Numerous group and solo exhibitions have showcased his work, including a feature role in 2005's ground-breaking Visual Arts Open. Another memorial collection followed with 'A Good Friend Is Hard To Find', a tribute to Reyum's Ingrid Muan.

No stranger to storytelling, the artist has years of history to draw upon, and recounted serving in the nationalist 'Chivapol' troops when then-Prince Sihanouk (now King- Father) was working to secure Cambodia's independence from the French. (A written account of this time also won an award from the Nou Hach Literary Journal.) An exhibition recounting this time 'Memories - 1938 to 1954' was featured in 2006 at The Royale, bringing the creator full circle from staff worker to honored guest.

Librarian and long-term resident Margaret Bywater recalls her old friend as a 'quiet and friendly presence' from The Samaki in the 80s. "I was delighted to see a living example [of original art] here in Phnom Penh, and the artist being someone I remembered from the 1980s was an added bonus. Last year I became the proud owner of one of Svay Ken's works."

As prolific as ever, the septuagenarian artist shows no signs of slowing down and is working on a new series of paintings reflecting his opinions regarding modern-day Cambodia.

Special thanks to Sim Sisavuthara for translation help.

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