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SVAY KEN: Picturing Cambodia

SVAY KEN – A Painter's Painter

Printed as a feature in the Phnom Penh Post on Dec. 15, 2008

Svay Ken was an unusual combination of inherent authenticity and acute self-awareness. This remarkable artist's body of work is, by definition, from a specific place and time yet he often transcended this very definition. His paintings embody a personal interpretation of his daily life in Cambodia and can also be independent of this categorization because they are consistently successful and poignant compositions - regardless of their subject matter. While Svay Ken's artwork can readily be described as naοve, it is simultaneously highly sophisticated and intelligent.

This artist was impressively prolific and, as a result, his oeuvre is inconsistent. Curiously, this might be a source of strength for the painter as it liberated him from the "the burden of striving for perfection". He painted whatever he wanted to and in whatever manner he deemed appropriate. In Svay Ken's studio over the past 13 years I have seen wild swings of style and execution in his canvases with not a small amount of a kind of automatic-painting method. He can paint quickly and without much contemplation one month, then the next month the paintings reflect a high degree of focus and intensity. In his case, quantity seems to birth quality eventually.

Svay Ken's life and his work was seamlessly integrated. He lived the life that he advocated on canvas. He was a devout Buddhist and often discussed his religious ideas through visual imagery and one of the most attractive techniques that he employed was the use of Khmer script in the compositions. He would lovingly unfold narratives through text and imagery using olive greens, royal blues, sunflower yellows and chocolate browns – he was a consummate storyteller.

While his painting style was not ground breaking or especially innovative, his subject matter was certainly singular and significant. He painted his life. This might sound simple and obvious, but in the context of Cambodia's arrested visual art scene rising from complete devastation during the 70's, it was radical. The commercial market dictated the art community landscape and most artist's felt they has to cater to the kitsch paint-by-numbers style for the souvenir buyer. Svay Ken showed younger artists, by example, that it was possible to be successful by making original work. He became an invaluable role model for an entire generation of developing painters – this importance of this to the Khmer art community cannot be overestimated. He will, forever, be regarded as the undisputable master artist of the modern Khmer period.

His studio door was always open to any and all visitors. Here was Cambodia's preeminent painter who would take the time to talk to important art curators as well as the casual tourist that had found their way to his tiny studio by Wat Phnom. He was as generous with his spirit as with his time, always making sure that his guest was comfortable. Svay Ken often painted outside on an easel and I would come by, sip a fresh coconut and visit while he panted as traffic endlessly circled the wat. He made do with very little and produced an impressive amount of work from these unassuming and modest surroundings.

As a personal friend, Svay Ken was kind and giving to me during the 12 years that I knew him. I felt conflicted sometimes when I brought people to his studio because I was disturbing his work, yet I knew that he wanted the artwork to leave the studio, he wanted to support his family. He was unfailingly gracious and welcoming when I would haul 4 new people up the stairwell to the studio to see his newest work. When we had a show together in Saigon in 1998, the Vietnamese were as interested in the story of the man as with the paintings themselves – what kind of man exactly was this Cambodian contemporary artist? At every exhibition that I ever had in Phnom Penh, he came early to the openings and looked at the work seriously and with genuine interest.

One of the most intriguing qualities to Svay Ken, the man, was his unpredictability. While he seemed to be mostly disinterested in mining formal International art history, he was keenly aware of contemporary art being created around him in Phnom Penh. Even as his physical mobility becomes increasingly limited he made a herculean effort to attend every possible art opening in the capital, doing this for many years now. For a painter who had clearly achieved a fluency and comfort with his own personal style of painting, he was surprisingly curious about the surrounding art community. This undeniably betrayed the artist's own confidence and sense of his role in the Cambodian art world.

In sum, Svay Ken was the real thing. He was the painter who wakes up painting and ends the day with a brush in hand. He actually was the romantic and idealistic realization of the artist who lives to work and works to live. But he was so much more than that as any knowledge of his personal history reveals. He was a survivor, a provider and a generous man who had given much to Cambodian contemporary culture, during this recent period when there has been a glaring dearth of artistic production. He is an artist who simply painted the stuff of his life: objects, architecture, people, vehicles, food, landscape, ritual. Svay Ken was one with his brush – a brush loaded with clarity and poetry.

Bradford Edwards, Phnom Penh, December 2008