Exhibition celebrates the life and art of national hero

Exhibition celebrates the life and art of national hero

Phnom Penh remembers one of Cambodia's most prolific artists, Svay Ken, through an exhibition of his paintings gathered from the capital's private collectors

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Svay Ken at his home studio in 2008.

Photo by:

Tracey Shelton

Exhibition of Svay Ken’s paintings at Java Cafe and Gallery.

Java Cafe and Gallery is currently hosting a tribute exhibition celebrating the life of Svay Ken, who was one of Cambodia's most prolific artists. 

The exhibition, titled "Svay Ken - A TRIBUTE ... because we loved him", which opened last Friday, showcases 24 paintings gathered from Phnom Penh's private collectors in an effort to share the artist's work with the community.

"This exhibition is a direct reflection of the community's intimate involvement in the life of Svay Ken...[It] is about the brilliance and vision of Svay Ken. It encourages people coming together to celebrate one man's life and work, an exceptional man, an extraordinary painter who documented what he saw around him," said the exhibition's curator, Bradford Edwards.

The exhibition is a community-based project that is absolutely commercial-free. In fact, it is impossible to buy a painting during the exhibition, Bradford Edwards said.

The exhibition is about the brilliance and vision of svay ken, it encourages people ... to celebrate one man’s life and work.

"How refreshing and wonderful is that? In today's version of the art market and the world in general, this idea is almost anarchic, revolutionary, and unheard of," he added.

An interactive feature in the form of an open forum encouraging the public to express themselves sits well alongside the famous works.

"[The boxes} are for people to give physical form to their feelings and thoughts. Anyone can do whatever they want in these boxes...write, print, draw, smudge, tape, glue, erase. discuss, dream, wonder, hope and love," Edwards said.

A memorable life

Svay Ken died last November after a prolonged illness at the age of 75.

He was a self-taught artist and began painting in 1993 as the country emerged from years of social unrest, a surprisingly late stage in his life.

Prior to 1993, Svay Ken worked as a waiter at Phnom Penh's Hotel le Royal for 40 years.

Most of the artist's  paintings depict modern-day portraits of Cambodian life. His subject matter consists of individual portraits, local settings and images recalling the Khmer Rouge period.

In fact, Svay Ken is said to have been the leading Cambodian "folk" artist of his time.

A panel of three works by Svay Ken's granddaughter hang proudly next to her grandfather's masterpieces.

Ouk Sochivy's work represents a contemporary Cambodian perspective. It is a social comment from another generation that ensures that the family's legacy lives on.

"Svay Ken might have stopped breathing, but his artwork and his effect on people around him will fill all of us with love and hope and warmth ... forever," Edwards said.

"Svay Ken - A TRIBUTE ... because we loved him" runs at Java Cafe and Gallery until late March.