from the Phnom Penh Post, July 22, 2001
A voice from a
extraordinary artist gives an intimate portrait of an
ordinary Cambodian life
So far, there
have been 128 events in Svay Ken's life, almost all of them
unremarkable. He shined shoes at a hotel. He carried
suitcases. He got married. He laboured under the Khmer
Rouge. He returned to 'the hotel. He sent his children to
school. He mourned his wife when she died.
And one other
thing. At the age of 60, nine years ago, he decided to paint
pictures. He needed money, he said, and so "one day 1 just
He showed his
pictures to the foreigners at the hotel. "Some of the
foreigners liked my paintings, some not," he said. "But the
people who worked with me at the hotel, they said, These are
naive, prosaic, there seemed little of art in his pictures.
But they were oddly charming, surprisingly magnetic. People
began to buy them.
And then last
year another unusual thing happened. When his wife, Tith Yun,
fell ill and died, Svay Ken found himself in the grip of a
new compulsion. He had to tell her story — his story.
"Tith Yun was
born on Nov 7, 1941, in the year of the snake," he wrote. "Tith
Yun became my wife, and it is in memory of her that I write
this account of her life and the family that we made
millions of stories just like his in Cambodia, ordinary
lives with a bloody gash in the middle from 1975 to 1979.
That was when the Communist Khmer Rouge ruled the country,
causing the deaths of more than a million people.
But this is a
silent land where few people talk about the past. Like Svay
Ken, most see themselves as ordinary and unimportant and
their sufferings as too common to be noted. They prefer to
bury their pain.
Svay Ken said
he has no idea what made him different, what drove him to
record his life, in words and then in an extraordinary
series of paintings.
wife died, I came out of the hospital, and I didn't feel
good," he said. "I just kept on thinking about my life. It
was bothering me. So I wrote it down. 1 wrote to make it
easy in my head."
read his story, Ly Daravuth and Ingrid Muan, directors of
the small Reyum Gallery here, urged him to tell it again in
pictures. It took him a year. The pictures in oils are on
display now at the gallery — 128 of them — as
straightforward and ingenuous as the artist himself.
"There is an
immediacy to them," Muan said. "He didn't take months to
think about each picture. They are like instant pictures
from his memories."
been no description quite like this of what it has been like
to live through the past half-century of upheaval in
several accounts by overseas Cambodians, there is almost no
indigenous literature of the country's tumultuous recent
past. And the accounts that do exist focus almost entirely
on the sharp edges of history.
Svay Ken is a
poet of the mundane, of the small moments that make up a
life, no matter how big the history that surrounds them.
Even his descriptions of the Khmer Rouge years focus on
cooking, finding shelter and caring for his children.
fear through the streets of Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge
soldiers entered the city, he stopped for a glass of water —
and stops in his painted narrative to record the moment.
interesting that the mundane parts of his life take up more
space than the Khmer Rouge years," Ly Daravuth said.
"There's a before and an after. In his pictures, going to
buy plates after he was married is as important as the Khmer
And once it
has been memorialised, each of these moments is as precious
as a pebble plucked from a beach, polished, handled,
examined and treasured.
"We went to
buy plates for our new household at a store south of the New
Market in Phnom Penh," reads the title of one picture.
Next comes, "Tith
Yun carried her basket and scale to Doeum Kor Market,"
followed by, "We awoke at two in the morning to steam sticky
rice cakes," then, "Tith Yun carried the steamed rice cakes
to sell at O'Russey Market while I prepared the children for
school," and, "Tith Yun sold her rice cakes alongside other
vendors in front of the market."
of his life continue in measured order as Cambodia slides
into the grip of war.
in the city almost every day and every night," and, "At that
time, the price of food rose very high. We couldn't afford
to buy Khmer rice, and so we ate only coarse-grained rice
provided by United States donations," and, "Tith Yun asked
me if she could go to sell silk in Ream."
interview, Svay Ken insisted that there was no moral to the
story of his life. "I just sat and followed the flow," he
said. "I wanted to show my life. I wanted to show it as a
life of struggle, and that I made it through."
But a mystery
remains at the core of his story: his compulsion to remember
and record and to turn his life into art. Although he is
supported by his grown sons now, he said, he cannot seem to
"I don't need
to work," he said, "but my hand won't keep still."
His hand was
busy throughout the interview in his small home, where
stacked paintings compete for space with cooking pots and a
large crib. As his visitor scribbled his words in a
notebook, Svay Ken scribbled too, in a notebook of his own.
Why? "I can't
keep it all in my head," he said. "I take notes so I can