Cambodian contemporary artist Svay Sareth has been announced as the overall winner of the Prudential Eye Awards for Contemporary Asian Art, which took place on Tuesday at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands Hotel as part of the city’s Art Week.
The prestigious awards celebrate emerging contemporary artists from all over Asia, and are broken down into five categories. Sareth’s work was nominated in the Sculpture category, where he was in competition with China’s Yang Mushi and Bangladesh’s Promotesh Das.
After being named winner in his category, Prudential’s seven judges then selected Sareth as the winner of the Overall Best Emerging Artist for the 2016 edition of the awards.
Combined, the two prizes are worth $50,000. Sareth has also secured an international solo show, set to take place at London’s prestigious Saatchi Gallery later this year.
Speaking from Singapore after the announcement, Prudential Eye Awards director Niru Ratman described 43-year-old Sareth’s story as “incredible and inspiring.”
“His artwork draws on a very specific context but transcends that,” he said. “He produces works that are funny, poetic and confident.”
Under Pol Pot, Sareth and his family sought refuge in the Site 2 refugee camp in Thailand, where he first started to make art. After the fall of the regime, he went on to co-found Battambang contemporary art school Phare Ponleu Selpak.
Sareth’s art is notable for often taking as its starting point the materials and practices of war. In the past, he has made sculptures out of camouflage material and iron, and has undertaken feats of great endurance.
His most recent solo exhibition, held at Phnom Penh’s SaSa Bassac last September, focused on the cheap rubber sandals sold by travelling salesmen and included a video in which Sareth broke apart the straps of the sandals with his teeth. “These objects hurt me,” he told Post Weekend at the time – referring in large part to the footwear’s association with the Khmer Rouge. “After I realised that [they] hurt me, I thought, eat it, and you will see.”
Speaking from Singapore yesterday, judge Gu Wenda said it was a combination of Sareth’s “lived experience” and the “stunning visual elements” of his work that secured the first place prize.
Wenda, who is himself a highly celebrated artist in China, said that he also admired Sareth’s cross-disciplinary approach. “A lot of it is a cross, a mix – that’s the charm and challenge of the contemporary art,” he said.
The Prudential Eye Awards were created in 2014 to champion art from across the entire Asian region – from Turkey to Australia. This is the second year running in which a Cambodian artist has been successful: in 2015, Khvay Samnang championed in the photography category, but lost out on the overall prize to Japanese collective Chim Pom.
Speaking before the awards took place, director Niru Ratman said that the ongoing success of Cambodian artists in such a geographically wide-ranging competition was striking.
“We get nominations from almost all the countries, and we don’t really expect two artists in consecutive years from what is a very small art scene,” he said. “So there’s obviously something going on in Cambodia.”
Sareth could not be reached for comment yesterday.