If there ever was a need to prove that creativity had nothing to do with youth, this seemingly frail man with a gentle smile on his ageless face, who leans on a cane as he slowly takes a step, would do it.
Svay Ken’s latest paintings speak of quiet exuberance and the joy of peaceful moments—a tea pot with cups and a cookie jar set on a table, ready to be used; a ceiling fan on a sunlit backdrop of a pale blue wall and white ceiling; a hairdresser’s chair and table, all muted rose and blue, in wait of a client.
The series that the painter, who turned 74 on March 9, named “Things” is both different and in the same vein as his previous works.
Done with mastery, the oil paintings—exhibited at Java Cafe and Gallery through August—have the simplicity of Svay Ken’s earlier images of Cambodian life in the countryside. But the style sets them slightly apart from works in his signature technique often described as primitive or naive, which he used for his series on the Japanese occupation of Cambodia in the 1940s that was exhibited last November.
Unlike his previous works, people do not feature in his latest paintings. And yet, Svay Ken said, the approach is the same as when he paints village life based on his childhood recollections in Takeo province.
“These are basically tools and things that I used in my house,” he said of his subject matter. “Today, people like to use modern equipment…and some of those classic objects have disappeared. These paintings can let the young generation know about those classic objects—that’s why I painted them.”
In one painting, a record player surrounded by bluish-black vinyl records stands on a plain brown background—objects out of use for decades that have since become collectibles.
In another image, a pedal-operated sewing machine is painted in strong black and beige lines in a 1930s style, setting the machine in its era.
There is also a gas lamp in grey and blue tones on a black background, a wooden toilet water tank high up on the wall, and a cityscape of electrical boxes and wires over rooftops.
“I really like his work,” said well-known Cambodian artist Leang Seckon, 33.
“He is like no one else, has not studied techniques in schools. And he is totally open [in his work], not scared of doing right or wrong, very relaxed about it all.”
Although he is the oldest prominent Cambodian painter today, Svay Ken is truly contemporary in style and spirit, Leang Seckon said. “He is old, but he is really one of us, contemporary artists.”
Although Svay Ken’s uncles and relatives were pagoda painters, he only started painting in 1993. He worked at Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh before the Khmer Rouge era, which he spent in work units in the countryside, and then returned to the hotel in 1979.
But as his health was failing, he decided to try his hand at painting and, when he retired from the hotel in 1995, he became a full-time artist, drawing from memory vignettes of everyday life as it was in his youth and the events he had lived through.
“In his paintings, you see Cambodia through the eyes of a person who really loves Cambodia and its people,” said Patricia Baars, who is in charge of land-issue projects at East West Management Institute and owns several of Svay Ken’s paintings.
“They make you really love Cambodia, seeing it as a normal Cambodian sees the country when he looks at daily moments like making a phone call, roasting bananas or making clay pots,” she said.
“What I like about his paintings is that he portrays the heart and soul of Cambodia in straightforward, simple lines,” said Josephine Barbour, country director for Church World Service who also owns a number of Svay Ken’s paintings.
“They’re bold, straight composition, free of clutter.”