At barely 8 am on Monday morning, Svay Ken was putting on his green painter’s apron. Already, the petrol, coconut juice and cigarette booths surrounding his gallery, on a street corner near Wat Phnom, were buzzing.
Walking slowly on his damaged legs, the artist, who will be 75 years old on March 9, set up a canvas covered with shades of forest green and burned gold on an easel outside the door. He put a basket of half-full oil-paint tubes, a dozen fine brushes and his palette on a narrow bench in front of the easel, and went to work.
Paintings stacked inside the gallery included a still life of an oil lamp, a Buddhist ceremony, and scenes out of his youth—such as then-King Norodom Sihanouk’s student brigades for independence parading in 1953.
But that morning, the image that would come out of Svay Ken’s imagination was that of a woman carrying a basket of pineapples on her head. He worked steadily for an hour, gazing distractedly toward the street once or twice, holding no less than six brushes with as many colors of paint in his left hand and using them in turn as he painted.
And out of yellows and browns, greens and blues, dark reds and creamy whites, she came to life—a woman past her youth, weary and intent on selling her wares.
“I love to paint life and society around me because it is real life, and it shows the way our people live, their situation, and how they earn a living,” he said.
In light strokes that suggest rather than represent, Svay Ken paints what he has seen, whether farmers while he was growing up in Ampil village in Takeo province or today’s vendors on the streets of Phnom Penh.
When his wife Tek Yun passed away in 2000, he wrote her story and illustrated it in a series of paintings—their wedding in 1963; the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and their family’s long march out of the capital at gun point; he and his wife serving breakfast on the street in the 1980s; and his retiring from Hotel Le Royal after three decades of service—before and after the Pol Pot regime—in 1995 to paint full time.
The Reyum Institute exhibited those paintings and published the illustrated story under the title “Painted Stories” in 2001.
So after Ingrid Muan passed away on Jan 29, 2005, Svay Ken decided to paint the story of their friendship. His paintings will be featured at Reyum in an exhibition entitled “A Good Friend is Hard to Find—An homage to Ingrid,” which will open on Sunday at 5 pm and run through March.
Muan was co-director of Reyum, which she founded with Ly Daravuth in 1998. Both Muan, who was an art historian, and Ly Daravuth, a cultural anthropologist, were teaching at the Royal University of Fine Arts at the time.
Their goal was to document and promote both traditional arts—from tool-making and 19th-Century village clothes, to Khmer ornament and Reamker painting—and today’s artists, said Ly Daravuth. “We wanted to offer a space for cultural and artistic expression, which was absent at the time in Cambodia,” he said.
This involved systematically helping artists by holding exhibitions of their work and providing support for them to take part in international exhibitions.
As Svay Ken writes in the exhibition catalogue, Muan walked in his studio one day in 1998, speaking Khmer and dressed simply, “liking to wear long black pants made of soft cotton and a dark shirt with white spots like gecko eggs,” which she always wore.
“From that time on, this woman got to know not only my work, but also my wife and children,” he said.
And the friendship grew. Muan helped Svay Ken exhibit his work in Japan in 1999. His work had been selected by the curators of the First Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale exhibition. But the letter asking for slides of his work had arrived only days prior to deadline and, without Muan to take the slides and help fill in forms, he would have missed the opportunity, he writes in the catalogue.
Muan visited Svay Ken when he was in hospital, and she and Ly Daravuth attended ceremonies when his wife died.
In his own style of creating images through impressions, Svay Ken has painted Muan drinking coconut juice at their first meeting, with a quiet smile on her face. Here she is on her red motorcycle arriving at his home, then preparing his curriculum vitae on her desktop computer, and later among guests at an exhibition opening at Reyum.
At the end of the catalogue, Svay Ken writes of Muan’s life that “its meaning and significance have not vanished because she was a wise person who did good deeds, without regard for class or race. She helped people who struggled to achieve excellence.”
The Reyum Institute remains a place dedicated to popular culture, for researchers and artists to meet and work, Ly Daravuth said.