Svay Ken’s paintings depict the plain and ordinary. But that, the artist says, is what distinguishes his work.
“I painted pictures of everyday life, getting kids to school, looking for work, these are things that make life beautiful,” Ken said.
Svay Ken, 56, began painting eight years ago, selling his work to tourists for $10 a painting. Now he has a collection of more than 120 paintings chronicling the last 20 years of his family’s life.
They will be featured in an art exhibit, opening today, at Reyum Art Gallery. “The Story of My Family: 1941—2001” is a unique biography that details Cambodia’s history through the eyes of an ordinary citizen, giving an insight that is hard to find in any history text.
The project started off as a book titled “The Story of Her Life,” written by Svay Ken after his wife died in February of last year. “I had never written anything like this before, but I have passed many obstacles in my life and I wanted to thank all those who have helped me,” Svay Ken said.
Co-directors of Reyum, Ingrid Muan and Ly Daravuth, encouraged him to paint pictures to accompany the text and after just more than a year of work, the paintings are now hanging on the gallery walls.
Svay Ken leaned steadily on his walking stick and his eyes scan the paintings, stopping every once a while to elucidate. He pointed to one of two men collecting what looks like soil near a WC sign.
“Human feces was considered the number one fertilizer during the Pol Pot regime,” he said. “It stunk, but I had to work to survive. If I didn’t work I would die.”
Another painting shows his wife, who was a businesswoman, carrying goods off of an airplane. “During the Lon Nol regime there was no way to travel by land. Even if you wanted to travel just 30 km outside of Phnom Penh you had to take an old plane, packed with people, pigs, fish, everything,” said Svay Ken.
The paintings are for sale at $100 a piece. Muan said the paintings are history in their own right and encourage people to talk about episodes in Cambodian history often overlooked.
“It makes us sad to break up the show. If they could go to a museum or a school or a library that would be great, but nobody wanted them,” Muan said.
Muan said she hopes at least the paintings will help ordinary people see that their lives are important.
“We hope that older people will come to see them and maybe they will be encouraged to start making accounts of their own lives,” she said.