THE PAINTINGS OF SVAY KEN (1933-2008)
Svay Ken was an artistic visonary and pioneer of Cambodian contemporary art. His captivating oil-on-canvas paintings have been in contemporary art collections, shows, and exhibitions across the Asia-Pacific as well as in New York. Born in 1933 and educated in a Buddhist pagoda in his native Takeo province, he painted daily for 15 years until his death in 2008. Although painting was a tradition in his family, Svay Ken was self-taught. He spontaneously took up the brush and palette in 1993, as Cambodia was emerging from more than two decades of war and social turmoil – and many years after returning to his old job as a waiter at Phnom Penh's prestigious Hotel Le Royal, where he had first begun to work in 1955.
Using the oil paint medium with a highly personal folk idiom style, he documented scenes from the everyday life he observed as well as the remembered past. His themes ranged from the innocently nostalgic to the piercingly haunting. Svay Ken's subject matter always features human beings, including individual portraits and groups of people in local settings. As a form of remembrance, he depicted scenes from the 1970s recalling the suffering and dislocations experienced during the civil war and the Khmer Rouge period (see above image), when more than a quarter of the Cambodian population perished.
“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 trained as traditional painters but later painted in a ‘modern’ realistic style as well. In 1993, after these relatives had all died, there were no grandchildren who knew how to make art and could continue their work. Although I was already sixty years old at the time, still I had the idea that I wanted to make paintings. I had always sketched things for fun and I had watched the activities of my painter relatives. I liked to listen to them when they told stories about famous painters that came, for example, from Japan, France America. So I began to make real paintings in 1993.”
Commenting on his focus on people and inspiration to paint, he stated, “The reason why most of my painting depicts farmers is because eighty percent of the Khmer people depend on farming combined with seasonal forms of craft making and small business in order to survive. My paintings depict national traditions and habits that are in decline. I don’t want people to forget how life was. My paintings are like a camera of my life of sixty years. I make paintings so that future generations can ponder the question, ‘How was life then and how is life now?’”
Edward B. Fiske of the International Herald Tribune was one of the first art critics to discover the early Ken, whose paintings he described in 1994 as being “utterly naïve and deficient in technical qualities such as perspective and proportion. A large banquet scene has a group of chefs who are much bigger than any of the diners, no doubt a reflection of the artist’s perceptions as a longtime waiter.”(1) (This painting, which ranks among his finest works, is available in this gallery).
Art critic Bradbury Edwards wrote in 1998 that Svay Ken “is an intriguing combination of influences: naïve yet sophisticated; uneducated yet intelligent; modest yet confident. Starting to make art late in life may sometimes be an advantage. Svay is a man at one with his work, and to know his paintings is to be close to the man.”(2)
New York Times correspondent Seth Mydans described Svay 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 description [in 2001] of the Khmer Rouge years focus on cooking, finding shelter, and caring for his children.”(3)
Art critic Bruce Blowitz, comparing Svay Ken to two other internationally acclaimed American painters, R. Diebenkorn and D. Hockney, argued more recently that "anyone who has studied late-20th century and 21st century painting can readily discern that in his use of perspective, Svay Ken is one of painting's most inventive practioners. ...Who does more with perspective, who uses it more effectively, the highly-trained and privileged Californian (Diebenkorn) or the not-formally-educated and relatively poor Khmer? Whose theme has greater significance? Where the American had mere lines running off the canvas, Svay Ken's lines become people and often a bomb that they're running from." Comparing Ken to Hockney, whose themes Blowitz describes as being "insignificant and self-indulgent," he rhetorically asks, "whose work is more complex, whose tells more about the person or people, who is the naive artist and who is the more sophisticated?" He concludes by suggesting that "Svay Ken's work gives us an insight into the human race and asks us questions about the essence of our existence."(4)
1) Eward B. Fiske, “An Awakening in Cambodian Art: New Styles for New Subjects,” International Herald Tribune, Asia Edition, September 1994.
2) Bradburg Edwards, “An Enduring Intimacy,” Asian Arts News , November/December 1998.
3) Seth Mydans, “An Artist Preserving Life’s Little Moments,” New York Times, September 19, 2002.
4) Bruce Blowitz, "Svay Ken: Light at the Beginning of the Tunnel," NYArts, the international guide to the art world, January/February 2006.