Svay Ken offers a rare glimpse at the lives of ordinary Cambodians during the
tumultuous past 60 years in his unique book and exhibit entitled "Painted
Stories: The life of a Cambodian family from 1941 to the present."
Family life is transcendent in Svay Ken's painted history of Cambodia..
self-taught artist who didn't start painting until he was 61, was inspired to
write the story of his family when his beloved wife, Tith Yun, died in February,
With the help of Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan of the Reyum Institute
of Arts and Culture, Ken's text was translated into English and he began
painting a series of 128 paintings to illustrate his story. He completed the
series within a year.
The paintings range from depictions of peaceful
rural life to illustrations of bitter human struggle during times of war -
offering a vivid and personal account of daily life in a country whose history
is too often recounted as a strictly political narrative.
"I just wanted
to paint an ordinary Khmer family," Ken said. "I like to show the lives of
farmers because it documents a way of life that could soon be gone to modern
ways... I think about the old ways."
The exhibit, which includes explicit
images of life under the Khmer Rouge and of the everyday violence that affected
families during decades of war, portrays Cambodian history in a very personal
"I wanted to show about our life and how we lived through that
history," Ken said of the exhibit. "It's not about history, but about what
happened to us under those historical circumstances. It's not an official
history, it's just what I remember."
Though admitting the paintings can
serve as teaching tools for both children and adults Ken says he didn't have any
didactic intentions for the series.
"The only lesson I could share is
that if you're educated, life is much easier. Since I was never educated, I was
a laborer, but I passed this onto my children," he said, counting among his four
sons, a doctor, businessman, anthropologist and MBA student.
took up painting in 1993 as he neared retirement and realized he would soon be
too tired to continue doing physical work. After working as a waiter and handy
man for what is now the Hotel le Royal off and on for more than 30 years, he now
paints from his small gallery called Khmer Art, just north of Wat
Ken said he wanted to paint the rural life that he had grown up
in, yet admitted he was drawn also to depicting ordinary life a bit by
"I saw people painting pretty paintings of Angkor and landscapes
with palm trees but I didn't go to school, so I knew I couldn't paint like that,
so I decided to just show the life of a farmer," he said.
Ken's work also
has been exhibited in Japan and Singapore, benefiting from a nascent trend of
international curiosity about a country whose artistic tradition has been
battered by years of civil conflict.
"It seems to be a time when people
are trying to include Cambodian artists because it's been a blank space for so
long," said Rey-um's Muan, who is a professor of art history in Phnom Penh.
"His work is unusual because there are hardly any paintings of real life
available - most of the [contemporary] paintings are of made-up landscapes with
a wat and a palm tree and an ox-cart."
While most visitors to the gallery
are charmed by Ken's insightful, yet very simple, paintings, Ken insists in his
self-effacing style that he's not a "real" artist.
"I never went to
school and nobody taught me how to paint - I'm no artist, I'm no author," he
said, sitting in his dusty gallery surrounded by some of the 800 or so creations
he has painted since 1993.
Svay Ken's exhibition is at the Reyum
Institute of Arts and Culture on Street 178 across from the National Gallery,
with the accompanying interpretative text available in both Khmer and English.
Reyum is open seven days a week from 8 am to 6 pm.