Painted stories

Opening reception, June 22, 2001



Svay Ken was born in Takeo Province in 1933. He came to Phnom Penh in the 1950s and worked as a waiter and handyman at the Hotel le Royal for more than thirty years. Svay Ken began to make paintings of everyday Cambodian life during the last years that he was working at the Hotel when he was about sixty years old. After his wife, Tith Yun, died in February 2000, Svay Ken sat down and wrote what he called “the story of her life”. The book tells the story of Tith Yun and Svay Ken, following the events and adventures of their family as they live through the tumultuous last sixty years of Cambodia’s history. At the invitation of Reyum, Svay Ken began to paint pictures to go along with his written text. This exhibition and its accompanying book are the culmination of our project together. The wall labels next to the paintings briefly note events which are fully described in the text of the book.

In Cambodia, relationships to the past - particularly the recent past - are uneasy, and both personal and collective histories too often remain silent. We chose to present these paintings and their story to the public in the hope that Svay Ken’s effort will spur others to remember and record events which might seem banal and decidedly un-grand, but which however make up a history of everyday life and experience. The form in which Svay Ken presents his history speaks to this language of the ordinary. His paintings are not considered “art” by the many who judge his work using common values of what is considered “beautiful”, “educated”, or “finished” in contemporary Cambodia. Still these paintings as a whole present a vivid account of a life lived and in their very proliferation, insist that we take them into account. In a similar way, many of the scenes which they depict are neither pretty nor decorative and thus these pictures function in a different register than the vast majority of paintings in Cambodia today. Despite their difference, we hope that these paintings find a place and a meaning in Cambodian society just as we think that their means of depiction should be recognized and embraced as one of many forms of possible expression.