SVAY KEN at his residence in Phnom Penh, 2008. Photo by Erin Gleeson for ArtAsiaPacific.

Where I Work

Svay Ken


Svay Ken lives and works in a bustling neighborhood defined by Phnom Penh’s historic landmark, Wat Phnom, the 14th-century hill (phnom) temple (wat) that enshrines Buddhist statues donated by a widow named Penh. The traffic circle rimming the monkey-populated park at the base of the hill conducts thousands of people around the turmeric-colored, colonial-era public service buildings, past a small brick structure marked by an oil-on-canvas portrait of a man holding a brush. The painted words “Khmer Art Gallery” are barely visible from the street. Once a wooden shack, Ken’s studio was constructed in brick after an American tourist bought 86 paintings for USD 2,000 in 1996. Today, the artist’s four sons and one daughter share the space. The entrance room is an informal gallery, a dining hall at mealtime, a play area for grandchildren after school and a garage at night.

Born in a rural village in southern Cambodia to a family of temple painters in 1933, Svay Ken married young and became a handyman at the lavish Hotel le Royal in Phnom Penh, where he worked for 34 years. Worried about his family’s finances, at the age of 60 he took up painting to earn extra income. When hotel guests began to purchase his canvases for up to $20 each, the equivalent of his monthly salary from the hotel, he immediately switched careers.

Since then, Svay Ken has never fully adopted the foreign concept of an artist’s studio. In Cambodia, family members live together and space is shared and multifunctional. Ken doesn’t conform to international concepts of an artist either. His language defines him as a cheang salapak gor, or worker-artist, a title and concept inherited from a rich artisan culture. He continues to practice traditional techniques, seeing himself as a humble worker who records history, not unlike the artisans who carved stories in stone or wove them in silk.

Until last year, Ken painted outside amid the street vendors. Cambodians interacted curiously with his work as they stopped to fill their motorbikes with petrol funneled from Coke bottles, purchased Western medicine from his daughter’s informal pharmacy-on-wheels, or chose from a tall mound of green coconuts. These colorful surroundings have appeared on hundreds of Ken’s canvases, which are often but too easily labeled naïve. Ken’s brushwork is as matter-of-fact as his content. From vivid memories, his immediate surroundings or digital snapshots, he records everyday life in Cambodia.

Despite a rising skyline and paved roads crammed with new SUVs, Cambodians have little exposure to art forms that deviate from their ancient traditions. It is sustained attention from foreign audiences that has established Svay Ken’s as an artist-artist rather than a worker-artist. He has shown in Cambodia since 1994 and regionally since the first Fukuoka Triennial in 1999. In 2001, the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture exhibited a seminal body of his work created in honor of his late wife, Painted Stories: The Life of a Cambodian Family from 1941 to the Present, a panorama of 60 tumultuous years.

Svay Ken, now 76, has retreated 10 meters from the chaotic street corner to the second-story, two-bedroom apartment that he shares with his youngest son and daughter-in-law and their two children. In his living room, nearly 100 paintings rest against every piece of furniture in chronological groupings. Old family photographs line the walls. Studying, playing and napping grandchildren are ever-present. Svay Ken’s working area remains a two-square-meter area occupied by his chair, easel and paint cart. Currently he paints in a corner on the balcony used for drying clothing, though sometimes he stays near his bedroom window, blessed with morning sunlight.