Cambodia says goodbye to artistic visionary Svay Ken

Cambodia says goodbye to artistic visionary Svay Ken

Acclaimed folk painter, who enjoyed a resurgence in popularity with his depictions of scenes from the country's everyday life, succumbs to a prolonged illness at the age of 75

Photo by: Heng Chivoan and Bradford Edwards

Svay Ken's funeral Sunday (left) and Svay Ken outside his house.

ACCLAIMED Cambodian folk artist Svay Ken died last Thursday at the age of 75 after a prolonged illness.

Born in 1933 in Takeo province, Svay Ken was an unusual artist in that he did not begin to paint until he turned 60 in 1993 and is completely self-taught.

An artist who distinguished himself by depicting scenes from Cambodia's everyday life, as well as the dislocation of the civil war and struggle to survive under the Khmer Rouge, Svay Ken challenged the audience to "find meaning" in his work.

Svay Ken embodied an unusual combination of inherent authenticity and acute self-awareness. While this remarkable artist's body of work is by definition from a specific place and time, his pieces often transcend this very definition.

Svay Ken's paintings embody a personal interpretation of his daily life in Cambodia, but they can also be independent of this categorisation because they are consistently successful and poignant compositions - regardless of their subject matter.

While Svay Ken's artwork can readily be described as naive, it is simultaneously highly sophisticated and intelligent.

Svay Ken's life and his body of work were seamlessly integrated, and he lived the life that he

advocated on canvas.

Svay Ken was impressively prolific and, as a result, his oeuvre is inconsistent. Curiously, this might be a source of strength for the painter as it liberated him from  "the burden of striving for perfection". He painted whatever he wanted to and in whatever manner he deemed appropriate. Svay Ken's studio was filled with work characterised by wild swings of style and execution, with an amount of work bordering on the automatic-painting method.

He could paint quickly and without much contemplation one month, then the next month the paintings reflected a high degree of focus and intensity. In his case, quantity seemed to birth quality eventually.

Living his art

Svay Ken's life and his body of work were seamlessly integrated, and he lived the life that he advocated on canvas.

He was a devout Buddhist and often discussed his religious ideas through visual imagery. One of the most attractive techniques that he employed was the use of Khmer script in the compositions. He would lovingly unfold narratives through text and imagery using olive greens, royal blues, sunflower yellows and chocolate browns; he was a consummate storyteller.

In his last exhibition, "Sharing Knowledge", Svay Ken highlighted the importance of "good deeds" and the devastating effect of "bad deeds" by pairing 12 religious and moral texts with images of greed, selfishness, respect and duty.

Svay Ken painted his life. While this might sound simple and obvious, in the context of Cambodia's arrested visual art scene rising from complete devastation during the 1970s, it was radical. The commercial market dictated the art community landscape, and most artists felt they had to cater to the kitsch paint-by-numbers style for the souvenir buyer.

The renowned artist showed younger artists that it was possible to be successful by making original work. He became an invaluable role model for an entire generation of developing painters - the importance of this to the Khmer art community cannot be overestimated. He will, forever, be regarded as the undisputable master artist of the modern Khmer period.

Warm generosity

The door of Svay Ken's studio was always open to any and all visitors.

Here was Cambodia's preeminent painter who would take the time to talk to important art curators as well as the casual tourists who had found their way to his tiny studio by Wat Phnom. He was as generous with his spirit as with his time, always making sure that his guest was comfortable.

Svay Ken often painted outside on an easel, and I would come by, sip a fresh coconut and visit while he painted as traffic endlessly circled the wat. He made do with very little and produced a substantial amount of work from these unassuming and modest surroundings.

One of the most intriguing qualities to Svay Ken, the man, was his unpredictability.

Tough, he seemed to be mostly disinterested in mining formal international art history; he was keenly aware of contemporary art being created around him in Phnom Penh.

Even as his physical mobility became increasingly limited, he made a Herculean effort to attend every possible art opening in the capital, doing this for many years.

For a painter who had clearly achieved a fluency and comfort with his own personal style of painting, he was surprisingly curious about the surrounding art community. This undeniably betrayed the artist's own confidence and sense of his role in the Cambodian art world.

Svay Ken was the real thing. He was the painter who woke up painting and ended the day with a brush in hand. He was the romantic and idealistic realisation of the artist who lived to work and worked to live. But he was also so much more than that, as any knowledge of his personal history reveals. He was a survivor, a provider and a generous man who gave much to Cambodian contemporary culture during this recent period when there has been a glaring dearth of artistic production. He was an artist who simply painted the stuff of his life: objects, architecture, people, vehicles, food, landscape, ritual. Svay Ken was one with his brush - a brush loaded with clarity and poetry.   

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