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Rodney Dickson
In December of 2004, I visited Cambodia for the first time. I was fortunate enough to have a contact there, Bruce Blowitz, an American collector of Southeast Asian paintings who has resided in Phnom Penh for sometime. The purpose of my visit was to research contemporary Cambodian art and Bruce proved a great source of information, both conversationally and via his extensive collection of paintings, which includes the work of several Vietnamese masters, such as Hoang Tich Chu, Nguyen T. Chung and Sy Ngoc. Of particular interest was his collection of Vietnamese propaganda paintings, one of which depicts a cannibalistic Pol Pot, painted to gather support for the Vietnamese intervention, in 1979. The great “discovery” of my trip was, however, the work of the septuagenarian Cambodian oil painter, Svay Ken. Born in Takeo Province and today living in Phnom Penh, Svay Ken is a vital element in the culture of contemporary Cambodia.

At this time, when once again the United States government is prosecuting a war based on a dubious premise, quite understandably, the so-called Vietnam War has become revived in the public mind. While it is nothing other than a tragedy that American politicians failed to learn a lesson from the country’s negative experience in Viet Nam, perhaps they can benefit from taking a look at the paintings of Svay Ken. A self-taught artist, he paints the everyday life of Cambodia, from the perspective of both the past and the present. An overview of his work lends an insight into the turbulence of recent Cambodian history. He portrays pre-Vietnam War Cambodia as a kind of a tropical paradise, followed by the devastation that war brought to the country, the result of which was more than four years of Khmer Rouge genocide. More recent paintings depict the devastated society struggling to return to normality. While Svay Ken intends for his works to remind future generations of the events of the past, they furthermore offer a deep insight into war’s horrific effects as well as comprising a profound study of the human race.

Some have described Svay Ken’s art as “naïve,” not exactly a compliment in the world of contemporary art. By virtue of the fact that he never attended an art school, his work could possibly be seen as conforming to that definition. Upon thorough analysis, however, one becomes aware of his thoroughly sophisticated use of color and that his apparently “rough” style of drawing serves to express his subject particularly well. It is, then, refreshing to discover an artist who is able to genuinely express himself without being influenced by the superficialities of what can best be described as fashionable art.

While his work may be categorized as naïve, in terms of both ability and concept, Svay Ken is one of the most talented and developed painters on this planet. Although almost entirely unknown outside of Cambodia, recently his work has attracted international attention. In 2004, he was chosen to be Cambodia’s sole participant in the Fukuoka Art Triennial and his paintings continue to hang in the Fukuoka Museum. In January, 2006, his work will be exhibited at Manhattan’s PS122 as part of a three person show, curated by Sara Reisman of the New Museum and titled, “An Imperfect Record.” We look forward to this contemporary master receiving the critical acclaim he so well deserves.