The work of the late artist Svay Ken is being exhibited at Meta House in Phnom Penh. The exhibition is being curated by Svay Sanuch, the artist’s brother, who administers an online museum for his late brother, and collector Helen Jarvis, who was a close friend of the artist.
Svay Ken: My Art, My Life will open on February 7.
Nicolaus Mesterharm, founder and director of Meta House said that Svay Ken, widely respected as the father of contemporary art in Cambodia, passed away on December 11, 2008, at the age of 76.
He added that Ken was a prolific painter, a devout Buddhist, a father of five, and a grandfather of nine. Ken was a huge role model for young artists as he was probably the first Cambodian to paint non-commercially, not just for tourists.
“He just painted his life, and people responded to that. Critics and young artists looked at him and thought, Wow, he’s not doing Angkor Wat, he’s just painting his life,” said Edward B. Fiske of the International Herald Tribune, one of the first art critics to discover the early Ken, whose paintings he described in 1994.
Mesterharm said the artist’s brother Sanuch is a journalist who continues to preserve Ken’s legacy through a virtual museum.
“Ken produced thousands of pieces over the course of his career. His captivating oil-on-canvas paintings have been shown in contemporary art collections, shows, and exhibitions across the Asia-Pacific region, as well as in New York,” he added.
“Ken’s paintings fetch high prices, with larger works going for up to $15,000. His works are usually sold to collectors from foreign nations, rather than Cambodia,” he continued.
Ken was born in 1933 and educated in a Buddhist pagoda in his native Takeo province. Ken began his working life as a waiter at Phnom Penh’s prestigious Hotel Le Royal. He didn’t start painting until his 60s, but the self-taught artist painted daily for 15 years until his death, according to the Khmer-Buddhist Educational Assistant Project (KEAP).
Not content with turning out paintings of Angkor Wat, Ken documented scenes from everyday life, as well as the remembered past, using the oil paint medium with a highly personal folk idiom style. His themes ranged from the innocently nostalgic to the piercingly haunting.
As one of the millions of victims of the civil war and the Khmer Rouge regime, Ken also depicted scenes recalling the suffering of those dark times.
KEAP’s cited Ken as saying that “I paint in order to preserve the traditions of former generations, in particular those of my grandfather. My grandfather, Hol Touch, had four sons who were all trained as traditional painters but later painted in a modern, realistic style.
“In 1993, after these relatives had passed away, there was no one who knew how to make art and could continue their work. Although I was already sixty years old at the time, I decided that it was up to me.”
“I had always sketched things for fun and I had watched the activities of my relatives who painted. I liked to listen to them when they told stories about famous painters that visited, for example, from Japan, France and the US. I began to make paintings in 1993.”
New York Times correspondent Seth Mydans described Ken in 2002 as “a poet of the mundane, of the small moments that make up a life, no matter how big the history that surrounds them. Even his depictions of the Khmer Rouge years focus on cooking, finding shelter, and caring for his children.”
Meta House will hold an exhibition of rare Svay Ken works, contributed by three Phnom Penh-based collectors.
Svay Ken: My Art, My Life will run from February 7 to 26 at Meta House, located on Street 228, Phnom Penh.