Svay Ken, widely respected as the grandfather of contemporary art in Cambodia, passed away on December 11, 2008, at the age of 76. He was a prolific painter, a devout Buddhist, a father of five and grandfather of nine.
Born in 1933, 70 years after the French colonial occupation of Kampuchea to a family of farmers and temple painters in rural Takeo province, Ken married and began his 34-year career as a handyman at the landmark Raffles Hotel le Royal in Phnom Penh. Upon his retirement in 1993, he changed careers when hotel guests began purchasing his hobby paintings for more than his monthly salary.
In the context of Cambodia, Svay Ken’s paintings were considered radical. Academic representational painting was barely established at the national Royal Fine Art School before the Maoist group, the Khmer Rouge, put an end to all artistic practices in the late 1970s. A survivor of the Maoist group’s brutal purges, Ken was completely self-taught. He became the first Cambodian artist to candidly depict daily life, rather than glorify rural vistas or ancient monuments.
Ken remained disinterested in mining international art history for styles or themes. Very often, journalists and curators assumed Ken had conceptual intentions behind his practice, while in fact he was simply practical. When asked by a journalist why he painted a claw-foot bathtub, he replied, “Yesterday I went for a walk and I saw an old bathtub thrown away in an alley.”
He was a natural storyteller and his paintings are snapshots of his life and his culture: farmers toil in the fields; women sell charcoal and corn on the street; soldiers flee from falling bombs; a family of ten share one bowl of rice on a silent, dark night; fish dry on a rattan tray; a neighbor watches television; a construction crew destroys a colonial-era building; a Buddhist monk blesses newlyweds. His painting titles echo these descriptions.
His most celebrated work was a eulogy to his wife who passed away in 2000. Painted Stories (2001) is a 128-canvas portrait of a Cambodian family who rebuilt their life after the dislocation of civil war.
Svay Ken debuted at New Art Galllery, then Phnom Penh’s only commercial space, in 1994. He continued to produce one solo show annually in Cambodia and took part in numerous group shows at home and abroad. Ken represented Cambodia in the first Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial in 1999. His paintings are collected by the Singapore Art Museum and by hundreds of individuals, mainly international visitors fortunate enough to have interrupted him at his outdoor easel on the corner of a busy roundabout in northern Phnom Penh near his home and studio.
In 2009, Ken’s works will represent Cambodia in the 6th Asia-Pacific Triennial with a selection from his last show, “Sharing Knowledge,” in which he contrasted “good deeds” and “bad deeds” by pairing 12 religious and moral texts with images of greed, selfishness, respect and duty.
His artist statement reads: “I am now 76 years old and close to leaving this world. I have to pass on what I know so I made these paintings for the young generation in Cambodia. I remember learning that the Lord Buddha said, ‘To be born as a human being is so rare! So before you leave this world, do good things for your own interest and others’ interest.’ Take me as an example. I make paintings; it’s my interest. The paintings give me money for medicines, food, my son’s education, my family and for giving alms. At the same time, they give knowledge to the audience.”
Svay Ken was a role model for emerging Cambodian artists, showing them that it was possible to succeed by making original work. The Svay Ken Foundation is being established in his memory to support young Cambodian painters.