Svay Ken ‘Master Khmer Artist of the Modern Period’ Dies at 75

Svay Ken, one of Cambodia’s most influential and prolific artists, died Thursday at his Phnom Penh home, family and friends said.

Despite debilitating arthritis, the 75-year-old continued to paint during his final days. He was considered an elder statesman of Cambo­dia’s art world, gaining national and international fame for his role as one of the first fine artists to depict every-day Cambodian life.

About 15 family members gathered Friday at Srah Chak pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district to start the seven-day mourning period. Svay Pisith, 38, the artist’s oldest son, said that his father had died peacefully at his home on Thursday.

Svay Ken was born in 1933 to a farming family in Takeo province. He went on to marry and have four sons, one daughter and nine grandchildren.

As a young man, Svay Ken came to Phnom Penh as a novice monk, according to a biography from the Reyum Institute. He later returned to Takeo to help his family farm, but went back to Phnom Penh and worked at Hotel Le Royal for nearly 40 years.

He started sketching when he worked at the hotel, and eventually pursued painting after his “retirement” in 1994, the biography said.

Over the years, Svay Ken held six solo exhibitions and participated in seven group exhibitions, catalogues of his work show. He also turned several stories into painting series. Those included a homage to his wife, after her death in 2001, and a remembrance of Ingrid Muan, the deceased founder and co-director of the Reyum Institute.

Yet another series pictoralized “Memories,” a short story by Svay Ken that was in 2003 awarded third prize as a short story in the Nou Hach Literary Journal’s competition.

Svay Ken’s most recent exhibition, “Sharing Knowledge” was on display at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh until last month.

Peers in the art world have the utmost respect for Svay Ken, said artist Chhim Sothy, who was a close friend.

“He is the most famous painter in Cambodia,” he said, and more importantly, one who encouraged and looked out for other artists.

Many others shared that sentiment: “I would call him the grandfather of modern Khmer art because he’s probably one of the first to move away from traditional imagery or traditional methods and really just to do his own thing,” said Dana Langlois, owner of Java Cafe & Gallery. “He was so prolific and he just pursued that constantly. He never veered from that at all. It opened the way for artists and especially young artists to find their own path as well,” she said.

Svay Ken didn’t start painting until his 60s, and until his death he churned out painting after painting in a simplistic “naïve painting” style from a “Spartan” studio near Wat Phnom, said Bradford Edwards, a Hanoi-based artist.

Edwards, who said Friday that he had known Svay Ken for more than a decade, called Svay Ken “the master Khmer artist of the modern period.”

“He was a huge role model for young artists…because he was really probably the first man who painted non-commercially, not just for tourists. He just painted his life, his work and people responded to that. Critics and young artists looked at him and [thought] ‘wow, he’s not doing Angkor Wat, he’s just painting his life,’” Edwards said.

Edwards noted Svay Ken’s speed: “He can paint a few paintings a day. He’s done hundreds and hundreds and probably in the thousands.”

And Svay Ken produced some of his best work in recent years, Edwards added. “They were unbelievably strong…. I’ve never seen such a complete transition in a painter. In his weakest state, he was painting still, every day.”

The last week of his life, Svay Ken completed two paintings, Edwards said.

Svay Pisith said those pieces were about farming proverbs. The family plans to compile Svay Ken’s paintings so that people can appreciate the breadth of his work, Svay Pisith added.

Artist Leng Seckon said on Friday that the government should encourage the arts so others can follow in Svay Ken’s footsteps.



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