‘Outsider’ Svay Ken’s Paintings Revealed Pieces of Himself

The frail old man with a gentle smile who walked with a cane, and lately with the support of a relative, had become a familiar figure at artists’ meetings or special events over the last five years in Phnom Penh.

During the week, Svay Ken could be seen outside his studio a few meters from Wat Phnom, his easel set up and painting among street vendors on that busy Phnom Penh street corner.

And on a regular basis, Svay Ken would come out with a new series of paintings that told a story, be it village scenes from the 1930s or Khmer Rouge atrocities he had witnessed in the 1970s.

Svay Ken, 75, considered the dean of contemporary Cambo­dian painters, died Thursday.

“I was born neither writer nor historian at all, but an outsider artist,” he said when he exhibited in late 2006 his series on Japan’s occupation of Cambodia during World War II.

“They are short stories dug from nowhere, just unloaded from my antelope-size head,” he said then.

Born in Takeo province on March 9, 1933, Svay Ken had grown up among pagoda painter relatives. But unlike them, he stayed away from religious themes.

“I love to paint life and society around me because it is real life, and it shows how our people live,” he explained three years ago while painting a village woman carrying a basket of pineapples on her head.

Svay Ken had only started painting at age 60 when, his health failing, he had left his longtime job as a waiter at Hotel Le Royal. By 1995, he had become a full-time painter, bringing to life on canvas the people he had known and events he had lived through without any other agenda than telling stories of Cambodia.

No matter the theme, Svay Ken never hesitated to share pieces of his own life with people.

After the death of his wife in 2000, he created a series illustrating their years together. Even his paintings on household objects exhibited in July 2007 were based on his childhood memories.

“These paintings can let the young generation know about those classic objects—that’s why I painted them,” he said at the time.

Svay Ken, who painted in a style described as primitive or naive in the art world, had no pretension about his work. Asked to paint his own vision of King Norodom Sihamoni for a special issue of The Cambodia Daily in May 2005, he had declined, saying that his style was only appropriate for simple images, not for a portrait of the King.

Cambodia’s oldest painter, he fully broke with tradition in ways that younger painters often hesitate to do. Painters must be daring, he told Cambodian and Vietnamese artists during a public forum in early 2006.

“He is like no one else…not scared of doing right or wrong, very relaxed about it all,” painter Leang Seckon said of Svay Ken last year.

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