SVAY KEN: LIGHT AT THE BEGINNING OF THE TUNNEL
Bruce Blowitz
 
Svay Ken, The journey home and the fall of the Khmer Rouge. On an altogether pleasant late August morning, Svay Ken, septuagenarian master of contemporary Khmer art, is situated close to the door of his studio, brush and palette in hand, adding layers of texture and meaning to his current painting. A compulsive painter, this daily activity has been the story of his adult life. Another story of his life is told in his paintings that portray the story of Cambodia as witnessed by him. As anyone with a little knowledge of Cambodia will know, this story is terrible and fascinating. It is an example of the capacity of the human race to act in atrocious and self-serving ways when put under extreme pressure, or when given the opportunity to do so. This insight into life should induce some self-reflection, as the architects of this destruction and genocide were "educated and decent" people, many of them Westerners, most of them Americans.

Loke Ken (or Mr. Ken, according to Khmer fashion) has certainly seen his share of Cambodian history. Born some ten years before the Japanese occupation, a period he remembers as one of stability and order compared to what had come before and what would follow. He served in Prince Sihanouk’s militia following the granting of independence in 1953, and went about creating a family (three sons, all well and prospering) amidst the turmoil of the second war in Indochina, and managed to survive the horror of Khmer Rouge enslavement.

Much of Loke Ken’s subject matter is historical and the success of these works can be attributed largely to the artist’s ability to convey his personal experience of the events through a masterful use of paint. His technique is often referred to as naïve, and being a self-taught artist he could be considered as such. However, he is a truly sophisticated artist whose technique enables him to capture very effectively the mood of his country.

An example of this sophistication is evident in his use of perspective and his portrayal of the human figure. For comparisons sake, let’s bridge out across the Pacific to the Bay Area and take a look at a couple of paintings by the very well-known and internationally acclaimed painters, Richard Diebenkorn and David Hockney. One of Svay Ken’s paintings depicts the incident when a hand grenade exploded in the Kampot marketplace, just after the Japanese left in 1945. Anyone who has studied late-20th century and 21st century painting can readily discern that in his use of perspective, Svay Ken is one of painting’s most inventive practitioners. Diebenkorn’s great forte, of course, was his use of perspective to portray what he had in mind. Let’s just take a look at one of his paintings, and now let’s look back to Loke Ken’s. Who does more with perspective, who uses it more effectively, the highly-trained and privileged Californian or the not-formally-educated and relatively poor Khmer? Whose theme has greater signifigance? Where the American has mere lines running off the canvas, Svay Ken’s lines become people and it’s often a bomb that they’re running from.

When it comes to figurative representation, Svay Ken has the ability to portray not just one or two persons, but masses of people. He does so while retaining the individuality of each figure and at the same time creating a relationship between all of the people in the group. Not many artists have achieved this in their work, be they art stars of the world or without any formal schooling. While Diebenkorn’s work is superficial and decorative, Svay Ken’s work gives us an insight into the human race and asks us questions about the essence of our existence.

Now let’s take a look at Hockney. One can say that generally his themes are insignificant and self-indulgent. Let’s take a look at the way he pictures people, and again, let’s take a look at Loke Ken’s portrayal of characters. Whose work is more complex, whose tells more about the person or people, who is the naive artist and who is the more sophisticated?