#37, Sothearos Blvd.
Phnom Penh, Kingdom of Cambodia

Svay Ken: Hand Bag


By Courtesy of Meta-House / Photo: Anders Jiras

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Svay Ken was an artistic visonary and pioneer of Cambodian contemporary art. His captivating oil-on-canvas paintings have been in contemporary art collections, shows, and exhibitions across the Asia-Pacific as well as in New York. Born in 1933 and educated in a Buddhist pagoda in his native Takeo province, he painted daily for 15 years until his death in 2008. Although painting was a tradition in his family, Svay Ken was self-taught. He spontaneously took up the brush and palette in 1993, as Cambodia was emerging from more than two decades of war and social turmoil – and many years after returning to his old job as a waiter at Phnom Penh’s prestigious Hotel Le Royal, where he had first begun to work in 1955. Using the oil paint medium with a highly personal folk idiom style, he documented scenes from the everyday life he observed as well as the remembered past. The painting of a traditional Cambodian handbag made from sedge (displayed here) is part of his series “Things”. Unlike his previous works, people did not feature in his last paintings. And yet, Svay Ken said, the approach is the same as when he paints village life based on his childhood recollections in Takeo province. “These are basically tools and things that I used in my house,” Svay Ken said of his subject matter. “Today, people like to use modern equipment…and some of those classic objects have disappeared. These paintings can let the young generation know about those classic objects—that’s why I painted them.”

Text: Nicolaus Mesterharm