A Good Friend is Hard to Find

by Svay Ken, Translation by Helen Jarvis

The truest friends are those who help each other in happiness and health, and who don't abandon each other in times of greatest suffering. Friends deserve glorious memory and riches without wanting to be famous. If one knows something, then one wants to share it with the other, never looking for reasons to be jealous, never speaking badly of the friend. When one sees the friend has done wrong, the other counsels them, never lets them take the wrong road. Friends never say one thing and mean another, never lie to or deceive each other, pointing out the way to earn achievement and success is through honesty. Such a good friend is very hard to find.

In 1998, about two years after I had finished working at the New Art Gallery, I had gone back to work on being a painter working on my own again. I was earning very little, as few international visitors knew me - only a few who heard of me through the New Art Gallery or from newspapers or magazines.

One day I was sitting in my studio near Wat Phnom. Suddenly I glanced up and saw a foreign woman, fair and tall, with a longish nose and grey eyes, with her blonde hair tied back, and with a wide mouth and thin lips, and dimples when she smiled. She was gentle and could speak Khmer, so we were able to understand each other. She was dressed plainly, liking to wear long black pants made from a soft cotton and a dark shirt with white spots like gecko eggs. And this woman always dressed like this, at a ceremony or in her daily life.

She walked up to me with long steps and lifted her hands in Khmer traditional greeting. I reciprocated. We started to talk. I learned that her name was Ingrid Muan. She was born in 1964 and came from the United States. But her father was originally from Norway, and her mother from Germany. She came to Cambodia to do research for her PhD and help teach at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. She came to visit me because she heard about my work.

From that time on, this woman got to know not only my work, but also my wife and children. Later on she came to my house time and again to tell me that my work had been selected for showing at exhibitions both within and outside the country.

In 1998, Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture was co-founded by Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan. The two traveled around Cambodia gathering together painters both young and old for Reyum's first event, Communication: A Contemporary Art Exhibition. And the works by myself, Svay Ken, were included.

At the end of 1998, the curators from the First Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale came to Cambodia to select Cambodian artists to participate in the exhibition. I was lucky to be one of the selected candidates. Then I received an official invitation letter from Japan, passed to me by Mr. Hap Touch, Deputy Director of the National Museum of Cambodia. The letter stated that I had to send slides of my paintings and also describe in writing my purpose in depicting daily life. To write in English about the life of an artist, and to send it to Japan before the 31 January 1999, was very hard, because I only received the letter several days before the due date. Mr. Hap Touch apologized for being so late, and said that I would have to finance this all myself. I was truly in despair, and so I went to se Ingrid Muan and told her that it seemed as though I could not afford to participate in the exhibition in Japan as there was not enough time left and I hadn't even begun to work.

I showed her the letter, and she just smiled and said, "You must struggle hard to do it because it is a great honour. They choose only two artists from each country. I will help you. Tomorrow morning I will come and make the slides. You need to write a short text with details of your life, and I will translate them for you." Two days later she gave the slides and article to my son Piseth to take to the Japanese Embassy to be sent to Fukuoka Museum. Only two days later I received a letter from the museum saying they had received the slides and I should arrange to send the canvases by air. Although I was not received personally at the opening of the First Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale exhibition, my paintings and my name were publicized throughout Japan. This was due to the efforts of Ingrid Muan, who helped me with all her heart and soul with no regard for reward - not even a single cent.

In 1999 my name was known throughout Asian art circles. I sold ten paintings for good prices, but sadly I was almost unable to benefit from it because I became seriously ill in March of that year. I had to stay in Calmette Hospital for 18 days and nights, and then to recuperate at home for another three months before I could begin to work again.

While I was in the hospital, and when I was home in a weakened state, Ingrid Muan spent her precious time visiting me on many occasions, asking about my health, and bringing fruit or fruit juice for me. She would say to me, "Please try to eat something, as it has vitamins to give you strength to go on." I answered weakly, "Thank you so much - and not only to you but also to your friends, who have come to know Svay Ken." People like Mr. Darryl Collins and Edward Fitzgerald also came to see me in the hospital.

At the end of 1999 and in the beginning of 2000, Reyum held an exhibition titled, The Legacy of Absence: A Cambodian Story and published an associated book. Research and curation was by Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan and their Reyum colleagues. My works were included and my sales amounted to $900.

On 11 February 2000, my wife Tek Yun endured the final suffering unto death. News of her passing spread quickly, and before long I saw Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan arriving at the morgue. Ingrid even acted in accordance with Khmer custom by lighting incense and kneeling down to pray for the spirit of the deceased. At the seventh day ceremony they were there again, as were Helen Jarvis and her husband Allen Meyers. And they participated in the 100 day ceremony. I thank them for this and shall never forget it.

At the end of 2000, Ingrid Muan told me about an exhibition project organized by the Heinrich Boell Foundation which was to be held in Chiang Mai. The title of the exhibition was, The End of Growth? She suggested I paint on this theme for the exhibition. Reyum would take on the responsibility of sending my paintings to Chiang Mai. She then translated the contents of the project text from English into Khmer so I could understand it.

In 2000 when my died, I had the idea of writing her life story, from the time she was a young girl through the time of our marriage in 1963 and our life together until her death in 2000. Not only would I write, but also paint the story from the beginning to the end. When I had written the text, I took it to Ingrid Muan to look over. After she had it for about a week and she came to tell me, "It is very good. Just keep it as it is, as I've never seen a writer write so deeply in day to day language, yet so deeply. I will translate it into English, and please can you try to paint the story as quickly as possible and Reyum will organize a big exhibition for in 2001." Then the three of us (Ly Daravuth, Ingrid Muan and myself) decided to work towards an exhibition in June 2001. My friends and relatives in Phnom Penh were astonished to receive the invitation on heavy paper, folded like a restaurant or hotel menu, announcing the exhibition opening from 5-8pm on Friday, 22 June, and running through August 2001. The exhibition was entitled My Wife's Life, 1941-2001. At the opening there were many guests - both national and international - and they bought copies of the book and paintings for themselves. Foreign journalists have been coming to seek interviews with me from that time on. The news spread to almost all countries - to Asia, Europe and America. When people came looking to buy my works, I grid Muan would always bring them to my house or arrange for them to find me.

On Saturday, 29 January 2005, when I was having lunch, my son came and told me, "Ingrid Muan died this morning." When I heard that, I began to sob. I quickly got dressed and went straight to Reyum to join the staff in laying her body to rest at the river house, where she used to live with Ly Daravuth, in Kdei Chas Village, Bakheng Commune, Mukh Kampul District, Kandal Province. From that time on I would never hear her calling me "Om" (title of respect for an older person), but the trace of her smile will remain forever. Her life had definitely come to an end, but its meaning and significance have not vanished because she was a wise person who did good deeds, without regard fro class or race. She helped people who struggled to achieveexcellence and the hour of fame - like me, the author of these words, whose name is known in Asia, Europe and America because of the efforts of Ingrid Muan. On that day, at that hour, she left us, her friends, never to return.

In conclusion, I wish to thank Ingrid Muan once again. I will never forget the kindness she offered me from her heart, and with no thought of recompense. I wish to pay my respects to her...