Nothing in the lives of Svay Ken and Chath Piersath would have suggested that their paintings could stand harmoniously side by side. And yet, a quiet understanding emanates from their joint exhibition at Java Cafe & Gallery.
Worlds and decades apart, these men are both concerned with the extraordinary in people—Svay Ken cloaking everyday gestures in unassuming dignity, and Chath Piersath allowing a glimpse into a person’s soul. They express Cambodia’s reality at different levels that complement each other.
With bold lines and few details, Svay Ken depicts Cambodians at their daily tasks. In one of his unnamed works, the image of a woman roasting bananas fills the canvas, the krama covering her head painted in dabs of white and blues, her skirt in burned yellows and browns. In another, a family eats on the ground, with little but a sky-blue kettle and a cluster of bananas in the room.
To illustrate these country scenes from today and from his childhood in the 1930s and 1940s, Svay Ken uses simple lines, muted colors, and deep green, brown and black background that accentuate people in action—monks wrapping themselves in orange robes, a man preparing a coconut at a road stand, or a barber cutting a client’s hair. “I have a whole notebook of scenes from the past to paint,” Svay Ken said.
In Chath Piersath’s paintings, people’s faces appear out of whirls of colors, as if their buried sorrows were struggling to emerge. Portraits imply secret pain and memories of hardship but, in most cases, without conveying hostility or despair, as if people were reconciled to their past and present.
In one piece, a face emerges from a swirl of orange and red, the start of a smile on her face. In another, a person’s eyes in stark white and gray pierce through a world of black and gray. A group of people, their faces still with pain untold, are draped in maroon, blue and gray.
“The more I paint, the more I learn about colors and about the feelings they convey,” Chath Piersath said. Using only one brush, he dips it in one color after the next, creating the tones of the painting as he goes.
Neither Svay Ken nor Chath Piersath trained as artists. But they both turned to painting out of a desperate need to express their emotions felt and shared.
Born in 1933 in Takeo province, Svay Ken began to paint 10 years ago, after the death of his wife.
Hol Tuch, his grandfather, had been a well-known artist who had worked on the wall paintings of the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh. Three of his uncles were painters and the fourth one a sculptor.
Even though his grandfather had taught him a little and he would have liked to be an artist, Svay Ken did not become one in his youth. He started working at Hotel Le Royal in 1955 and, after the Khmer Rouge era he spent in a work camp, returned to the hotel—then called Samaki, or solidarity hotel—in the 1980s.
It’s only after the elections of 1993 that Svay Ken started painting, at first drawing scenes from his life and from special occasions such as weddings and other ceremonies.
He held his first exhibition a year later with the support of Canadian friends. Today, working out of his studio near Wat Phnom, Svay Ken paints country daily life, especially as it was decades ago. Young people in Phnom Penh hardly know about farming or life in small villages, which makes it important to put on canvas, he said.
Chath Piersath was 13 years old when he was relocated to the US with an older brother and sister in 1981. They lived in a poor neighborhood of Denver in the state of Colorado, with no hot water in the house. But after living under Pol Pot and spending a year in a refugee camp on the Thai border, this was no big deal, Chath Piersath said.
Armed with a university degree in international-service development, he came back to Cambodia in 1994 as part of a project funded by USAid bringing in Cambodian Americans with expertise to help the country.
Coming here with his faded memories of Cambodia was “like going from one civilization to the next,” Chath Piersath said. One of his brothers was dying of AIDS, and his sisters were widows. “And there was the poverty, beggars coming to you while you ate—my head was about to explode,” he said.
Chath Piersath went back to the US in 1996, but returned last December with a masters degree in community social psychology.
He started painting a year ago, and has found peace expressing on canvas all the feelings of the people he had met in Cambodia. Some of his portraits of women and children of Tuol Sleng were exhibited at the US’ Rhode Island Foundation Gallery last year.