Like each brushstroke that Svay Ken combined to create his famous paintings, many movements merged into a memorial service held Sunday to honor the deceased artist and his role as the grandfather of Cambodia’s contemporary arts movement.
Incense wafted, monks chanted, and lilies, lotus and orchids were placed inside Phnom Penh’s Srah Chak pagoda as relatives, friends and colleagues gathered for a funeral procession and cremation ceremony for Svay Ken who died on Thursday at his home in Phnom Penh.
In most respects, it was an everyday funeral for the 75-year-old painter who is credited with being the first artist to depict everyday Cambodian life, and pave the way for the country’s current generation of modern artists to do more than produce pictures of Angkor Wat for tourists.
The funeral procession began about 2 pm with three trucks carrying the casket, immediate family and traditional Khmer musicians. It wound its way from Srah Chak pagoda to Svay Ken’s studio near Wat Phnom, then past Hotel Le Royal, where he had worked for decades, and back to the pagoda.
Though no one was at the front of the hotel when the procession passed, half a dozen or so staff members stood outside Le Royal’s side service entrance on Monivong Boulevard, bowing their heads as the procession passes.
It seemed a fitting sendoff, given that Svay Ken had worked at the hotel as a waiter for about 40 years before “retiring” and then discovering his talent for painting.
“He was a good man and everybody loves him, so we hold this funeral with satisfaction, honor and in the hopes that it fits his prestige,” said Svay Kabo, one of Svay Ken’s sons.
“I want people to remember my father as a good man who helped society through his art and who always helped those he knew when they were in pain,” said Svay Pom Sen, another son.
Many members of Cambodia’s arts community attended the funeral.
“I came to join his funeral as he is one of my good friends,” said architect Vann Molyvann, who said he had known Svay Ken since 1962.
“He is very talented. It is a big regret and sorrow losing him,” he said.
“He was a great artist,” said Van Savat, an artist who was friends with Svay Ken for more than a decade.
Through painting, Svay Ken helped reveal Cambodian society to the wider world, said Leang Seckon, another well-known local artist.
“Letters alone cannot easily catch a human being’s feeling, but his pictures can expose the feelings of humanity through color and pattern,” he said of Svay Ken’s work.