from the Cambodia Daily, January 28-29, 2006
Artist Pays Homage to a 'Good Friend'
by Kuch Naren and
Top: Svay Ken painting outside his studio on Street
47, close to Wat Phnom
Above: In this oil painting by Svay Ken, Ingrid Muan
photographs his work for the curators of the First
Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale exhibition in Japan in
At barely 8
am on Monday morning, Svay Ken was putting on his green
painter's apron. Already, the petrol, coconut juice and
cigarette booths surrounding his gallery, on a street corner
near Wat Phnom, were buzzing.
slowly on his damaged legs, the artist, who will be 75 years
old on March 9, set up a canvas covered with shades of
forest green and burned gold on an easel outside the door.
He put a basket of half-full oil paint tubes, a dozen fine
brushes and his palette on a narrow bench in front of the
easel, and went to work.
stacked inside the gallery included a still life of an oil
lamp, a Buddhist ceremony, and scenes out of his youth—such
as then-King Norodom Sihanouk's student brigades for
independence parading in 1953.
morning, the image that would come out of Svay Ken's
imagination was that of a woman carrying a basket of
pineapples on her head. He worked steadily for an hour,
gazing distractedly toward the street once or twice, holding
no less than six brushes with as many colors of paint in his
left hand and using them in turn as he painted.
And out of
yellows and browns, greens and blues, dark reds and creamy
whites, she came to life— a woman past her youth, weary and
intent on selling her wares.
"I love to
paint life and society around me because it is real life,
and it shows the way our people live, their situation, and
how they earn a living," he said.
strokes that suggest rather than represent, Svay Ken paints
what he has seen, whether farmers while he was growing up in
Ampil village in Takeo province or today's vendors on the
streets of Phnom Penh.
When his wife
Tek Yun passed away in 2000, he wrote her story and
illustrated it in a series of paintings—their wedding in
1963; the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 and their
family's long march out of the capital at gun point; he and
his wife serving breakfast on the street in the 1980s; and
his retiring from Hotel Le Royal after three decades of
service—before and after the Pol Pot regime—in 1995 to paint
Institute exhibited those paintings and published the
illustrated story under the title 'Tainted Stories" in 2001.
Ingrid Muan passed away on Jan 29, 2005, Svay Ken decided to
paint the story of their friendship. His paintings will be
featured at Reyum in an exhibition entitled "A Good Friend
is Hard to Find—An homage to Ingrid," which will open on
Sunday at 5 pm and run through March.
co-director of Reyum, which she founded with Ly Daravuth in
1998. Both Muan, who was an art historian, and Ly Daravuth,
a cultural anthropologist, were teaching at the Royal
University of Fine Arts at the time.
was to document and promote both traditional arts— from
tool-making and 19th-cenČtury village clothes, to Khmer
ornament and Reamker painting— and today's artists, said Ly
Daravuth. "We wanted to offer a space for cultural and
artistic expression, which was absent at the time in
Cambodia," he said.
systematically helping artists by holding exhibitions of
their work and providing support for them to take part in
As Svay Ken
writes in the exhibition catalogue, Muan walked in his
studio one day in 1998, speaking Khmer and dressed simply,
"liking to wear long black pants made of soft cotton and a
dark shirt with white spots like gecko eggs," which she
time on, this woman got to know not only my work, but also
my wife and children," he said.
friendship grew. Muan helped Svay Ken exhibit his work in
Japan in 1999. His work had been selected by the curators of
the First Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale exhibition. But the
letter asking for slides of his work had arrived only days
prior to deadline and, without Muan to take the slides and
help fill in forms, he would have missed the opportunity, he
writes in the catalogue.
Svay Ken when he was in hospital, and she and Ly Daravuth
attended ceremonies when his wife died.
In his own
style of creating images through impressions, Svay Ken has
painted Muan drinking coconut juice at their first meeting,
with a quiet smile on her face. Here she is on her red
motorcycle arriving at his home, then preparing his
curriculum vitae on her desktop computer, and later among
guests at an exhibition opening at Reyum.
At the end of
the catalogue, Svay Ken writes of Muan's life that 'Its
meaning and significance have not vanished because she was a
wise person who did good deeds, without regard for class or
race. She helped people who struggled to achieve
Institute remains a place dedicated to popular culture, for
researchers and artists to meet and work, Ly Daravuth said.