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SVAY KEN WORK : A COMBINATION OF HEAD, HAND AND HEARSvay Sanuch
At last Mr. Pruce, 58, American of nationality has pointed out over a dirty oil painting hanging far on the wall. This was Saturday 25 August 2005 at
9:00 o’clock after few hours scanning among some hundred or so unordered works crutching from floor to ceiling in a grocery-converted studio of Mr.
Svay Ken, next to Wat Phnom. “I like this work painting as unique as a legacy of Phnom Penh’s turmoil during colonization 50 years ago.”
The serene had repeatedly alarming, wandering its high speaker from the top roof of now central post office, warning people of all walks of life
for their refuge and shelters from any eventually attack. This was in 1945 at the central market and the place opposite to Wat Unnalom pagoda where
few minutes later fighting planes dropped bombs on the panic residents and pedestals.
“No exact tolls available of casualties” explained Mr. Svay Ken. The now Khmer well-known artist was then still teen and not at the scene,
but his defunct uncle did since he attended the fine arts school nearby. He later told him the story. To the questions who and why the
bombs were, Mr. Svay Ken hesitated, then answered quietly as he used to be: what I know is that the happening occurred the day after
the fall of Japanese invasion in Southeast Asia. It was heard that only alliance’s planes and fighters had access to the sky at those times.
Mr. Svay Ken was born on the 9th of March 1933 in a farmer’s family at Kralanh village, Leay Bo commune, Tramkak district in Takeo province.
He grown up from a family whose grand-parent born-artist was skilled in traditional Khmer art which was demanded all over southeast part of the
country. The famous artist, Mr. Hul Touch passed away in 1952 at his 76 years old, was also well-known architect. He painted series of Buddha
history on the temple’s walls and on rolled canvas for everyday worship of the Buddhists. Some of his edifices still remained and untouched mostly
temples in Preah Trapang province (Vietnam). Here and there Pol Pot had destroyed his entire works and structures leaving behind a fading legacy among
rare old generation of the village.
Although born in the heart of artist family Mr Svay Ken had never been trained. Only his 4 uncles had followed his father’s step; 2 were
trained on-the-job, and 2 were graduated from Phnom Penh fine arts school. The defunct artist, Mr. Touch Sun died in 1955 at his early 45
years old, and Mr. Touch Kan washed out away with all children of starvation during Pol Pot’s. Mr. Touch San now 89 is still one of traditional
In his childhood Mr. Svay Ken was sent to primary debut in a pagoda where he was monkshooded at the age of 14. On the recommendation of the head monk he
could attend the Bali school in Phnom Penh few years later. At 20 he finished successfully the monkshood, he returned back home to deal with farming and
then mobilized into people armed forced combating for national independence. In 1955 Mr. Svay Ken then applied for a job at LeRoyal Hotel. He conducted
well his careers from cleaner to porter to waiter and to room senior officer until 1995 when he was retired. Except for the period spanning from1975 to
1979 while Mr. Svay Ken was forced to be slave. Ken said of his specialized art debut: it was my retirement planning. What I am going to do next? He
answered himself: I will do anything but more colorful, and what I oversee in my childhood is my dream art.
He was right. From his close hotel room-turned studio, he started to sketch and paint whatever he could see around his working environment.
For example, these are his very first works. A guest sipped his beer while reading after a lazy swim in the piscine, a course of dinner party where
he was there as waiter. He then showed foreign guests for pleasure. Some criticized, few commented, one, Mr. Ed Fitzgerald from Reuters interested,
even keenly held his project a good start. The Canadian press writer had supported him in a modest finance and promised to launch in an exhibition.
With such a fuel Mr. Svay Ken, within 3 months span, had the final touch over 30 something oil paintings, all from a naïve brush of an unskilled hand but
full heart and abundance head.
At last a first exhibition of its kind was held in Phnom Penh New Art gallery on early March 1994. The news had spread out over the world by
New York Times, Herald Tribune and others of the rare findings. A unique but naïve grassroots' works had emerging from a place where torn by
more than 3 decades of civil war. The war destroyed everything but not undermined the spirit of human thinking.
Mr. Svay Ken recalled happily that 2/3 of paintings were sold at that very first night. Since then Svay Ken theme works diversified from what's
on in the street to own legacy of the past Cambodia. His paintings had traveled from Singapore to Hong Kong, from Chhieng Mai to Fukokami gallery in
Japan and so on. Today Singapore Embassy is on the preparation to launch Svay Ken's works and 2 selected others from Cambodia in a special exhibition
planned for the next March 2006.
"My painting could chat away with me as human beings do. Every time I gave a spirit to every drop of painting brush" Ken said.
While Pruce emptied his pocket and paid for the painting, he asked just to know what drivers have fuelled him into such a success.
Mr. Svay Ken who moved around with his bamboo stick summed up like this: one has to achieve his favorite goal with a combination of hand, heart and head.
The author is the only sibling of the artist. He also specialized in cartooning the complete movie. Svay Sanuch can be reached at