Svay Ken only began painting at the age of 60 and now, at 75, he hopes
the younger generation will find meaning in his new exhibition, Sharing
Photo by: ERIN GLEESON
Bophana Audiovisual team interviews Svay Ken for a documentary film about the Sharing Knowledge exhibition.
SHARING Knowledge, an exhibition showcasing the works of Cambodia's oldest living artist, Svay Ken, will open at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh this Friday.
At 75 years of age, Svay Ken is the Kingdom's leading contemporary folk artist. Far from retiring, in his most recent exhibition Svay Ken wants to remind a changing society in the throes of modernisation that valuable lessons can be learned from its past.
An artist who has distinguished himself by consistently depicting scenes from Cambodian's everyday life as well as the dislocation of the civil war and struggle to survive under the Khmer Rouge, Svay Ken challenges the audience to "find meaning" in his work.
Sharing his knowledge
In Sharing Knowledge, Svay Ken highlights the importance of "good deeds" and the often devastating effect of "bad deeds" by pairing 12 religious and moral texts with images of greed, selfishness, respect and duty.
"I tried to work on the pictures quickly over the past two months because I knew that I wasn't well and could get sick at any moment," Svay Ken said, adding that he is looking forward to creating more art if he finds the strength after falling ill a week ago.
The lessons in the paintings were chosen from many others routinely memorised in Cambodian monasteries, schools and homes, unifying a culture's beliefs and practices.
"In my pictures [I have incorporated many] meanings, such as Buddhist proverbs, Khmer proverbs, rule of conduct for men and rule of conduct for women, and some poems that I remember from when I studied," Svay Ken said.
"In one of my paintings, there are people covering their eyes with their hands because they don't want to see their relatives in case they come to them to ask for something," he said.
"I want to educate through my work that we should be kind to our relatives, regardless of whether they are rich or poor."
Aimed specifically at the younger generation of Cambodians, the paintings that will be on display at the Sharing Knowledge exhibition "hide a lot of meaning".
"I am unsure if young Cambodians will gain advice or education from my work," Svay Ken said. "I hope that they think carefully about the meaning in my work."
I never learnt from anyone, somehow I just knew how to paint.
One of a kind
Born in 1933 in Takeo province, Svay Ken is an unusual artist in that he did not begin to paint until he turned 60 in 1993 and is completely self-taught.
"Starting to paint at 60 was very strange, as not many artists start when they are so old," he said, adding that he had his first solo exhibition in 1994.
Svay Ken started to paint after he retired from his job as a waiter at the Hotel Royal in Phnom Penh because he needed a way to make money to support his family.
"My grandfather and uncle were artists, so I started to paint but differently to how they used to paint," he said. "I painted about the life of farmers and the real stories of people's lives.
"When I was working as a servant in an American house, I usually looked at their paintings on the walls and thought about what kind of paintings Americans liked," he said. "I never learned from anyone. Somehow, I just knew how to paint."
Svay Ken recalls the first time he sold one of his paintings for a significant amount of money and the impact it had on his family.
"One day there was a man from California who bought a painting from me, and at that time I got about US$2,000. I gave it to my wife. She cried because it was a very large amount of money - more than she had seen before," he said, adding that when he first started painting he would only get $2 to $5 for his work.
"My latest works have been selling for around $1,500," he said.
Svay Ken said that some of the success of his works can be attributed to his unusual "primitive" style.
"In order to improve or develop the work of art, all artists have to make their work look unique," he said. "Do not copy other people's work."
A success story
When he first started painting, Svay Ken never imagined he would become famous.
"Some people said to me that if my pictures were thrown on the road, no one would bother taking them or even stepping on them.
"But I never cared or got discouraged by what people who looked down on my pictures said.
"Now my paintings have been exhibited in many galleries all around the world, including Singapore, USA, Japan, Australia and Germany," he said.
The Queensland Art Gallery recently acquired a selection of paintings from Sharing Knowledge for its Collection of Contemporary Asian and Pacific Art, to be displayed in the sixth Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, opening in December 2009 in Brisbane, Australia.
Looking to the future
Svay Ken said that he is happy when many people recognise and appreciate his work. "It makes me forget some of the difficult times and suffering that I have experienced," he said.
"Initially I tried to paint because my family needed money. I did not want honour or to be famous," he said. "Now I have money and fame.
"I taught my granddaughter to paint, and now she can also do it," he said. "I am happy that the family tradition of painting can continue through my granddaughter.
"I don't have any words of advice for the young generation of today. I only have my paintings for them to see and think about."
Sharing Knowledge opens at Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center at 6pm this Friday and runs until November 22.