Nicolaus Mesterharm first met the late Svay Ken in a professional context: the artist was an interview subject for one of his films. But it didn’t take long before Mesterharm and the man he described as “the father of modern art in Cambodia” established a friendship which grew alongside the cultural centre he founded, Meta House.
“He was one of the first artists that I met,” Mesterharm recalled in an interview at his office last week. “Although my Khmer is limited, and his English was very limited, we developed a kind of friendship, and I visited him from time to time, and was also there in his last days and went to the funeral.”
Tonight, Mesterharm will have the opportunity to pay tribute to his old friend once more, at the opening of Meta House’s new exhibition Phnom Penh Painter. The exhibition, which is part of the arts and culture celebration Our City Festival, coincides with Meta House’s seventh birthday and comes shortly after the fifth anniversary of Ken’s death in December 2008. The paintings will feature a range of his works, including depictions of iconic Phnom Penh landmarks as well as more intimate family portraits.
Ken’s bright colours and bold figures and objects are reminiscent of 20th-century European styles, Expressionism in particular. The first Cambodian artist to be exhibited internationally post-Khmer Rouge, he was, for Mesterharm, “considered the father of modern art in Cambodia”. Remarkably, however, he was never formally trained and belonged to no established school of artistic thought. He took up his brush in 1993 at the age of 60, having worked as a waiter at Hotel Le Royal since the 1950s, a career that was interrupted only by the Khmer Rouge regime and a brief stint as a monk. He was subsequently discovered by the American curator Ingrid Muan.
Mesterharm said: “He had no influences, because when he started to paint it was during the 1990s – the UNTAC years. There was no internet, he couldn’t travel, there were no books, he never went to university, he was a waiter – the main influence was the way he saw the world around him.”
Ironically, however, it was this job that would provide a window on landmark historical events throughout 20th-century Phnom Penh, which Ken would use as the subject of his work. Included in the exhibition, for example, is a depiction of a grenade attack at Kandal Market when the Japanese were leaving Cambodia in 1945. Ken wasn’t witness to this event, but his portrayal is based on what his uncle told him at the time.
“A lot of his ouevre is centred around Cambodian history, from the invasion of the Japanese in the Second World War all through the Khmer Rouge and modern times,” Mesterharm said.
“It’s a huge body of work with the Cambodian history, but he also painted the life of a Cambodian family. If you look at his paintings, even though you might not like the style, people must acknowledge the value that it has in documenting how Cambodian people live. That’s all in the paintings: politics, the Khmer Rouge, food, weddings – everything has been discussed; it’s all been documented.”
Svay Pisith, Ken’s youngest of five children – the artist’s wife died in 2000 – said that he felt honoured that his father’s works would once again go on display. “It is a great time for my family, and we’re very happy. I feel the deepest emotions when I show his paintings, because I feel that he’s here with all of us,” he said.
Phnom Penh Painter opens at 6pm tonight at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard.