Svay Ken exhibition at Meta House marks the first anniversary of the painter’s death
Svay Ken’s paintings have often been described as “naive” by international critics, full of vitality in approach and subject matter, but lacking the technical skills that come with formal training.
Such categorisation has been resisted by Phnom Penh’s arts community, especially by those with a vested cultural interest in promoting Svay Ken as a unique visionary among contemporary Cambodian painters. Even critics who have tagged the painter as “raw” acknowledge that he brought a certain level of sophistication to his art, particularly in his creative, if unorthodox, use of perspective.
Svay Ken, who only started painting in 1993 at the age of 60, does seem to be one of those rare artists who benefited from lack of overexposure to the formal art world. Divorced from the desire to create work that followed any existing school of artistic thought or technique, he was liberated from the need to do anything but follow his own heart.
Of course no art is created in a vacuum, and if Svay Ken was ignorant of, or disinterested in, international trends in contemporary art, he took inspiration from his own life, from his upbringing in rural Takeo province, to the friendships he made during his long life’s journey.
Nowhere is the influence of friendship more evident than in the series of 30 oil paintings now on display at Meta House, which the artist made in homage to his friend Ingrid Muan who died in January 2005.
Always a compulsive worker, Svay Ken made the paintings in a frenzy of activity in the months following Ingrid’s death. The collection was originally shown in 2006 at the Reyum Institute, where Ingrid had been the cofounding director.
Van Sovanny, general manager of Reyum, said the speed with which Svay Ken completed the series of paintings was typical of the artist. He never stopped looking at the world through the eyes of a painter.
“He was making sketches even during Ingrid’s funeral. Then he approached us about showing the paintings at Reyum and of course we agreed,” she said.
But after the show the paintings faced an uncertain fate, according to Svay Ken’s brother, 64-year-old Svay Sanuch.
“These are the works he dedicated to his friend and he never thought to sell them,” he said. “He liked this work very much and he wanted to keep everything with him, so he told me that when he died he wanted all the paintings to be burnt with him.”
The artworks seemed to be slated for destruction, but further talks with his family, Svay Sanuch said, convinced the artist that the canvases should be donated to a museum. Before that step could be taken, however, an offer was made by a private collector to buy the entire group of paintings.
“We were lucky that the offer was made by one of Svay Ken’s friends,” Svay Sanuch said.
Saved from the flames, the paintings have been put on display at Meta House to mark the fifth anniversary of Ingrid’s death, as well as to mark the passing of Svay Ken, who passed away in December 2008.
Each painting in the exhibition, titled “A Good Friend Is Hard to Find” and continuing through February 28, illustrates a specific moment in the friendship between Svay Ken and Ingrid, from life-changing events (Ingrid attending the funeral of Svay Ken’s wife, depicted in Funeral) to more utilitarian episodes, such as photographing paintings for submission to an exhibition (Photographs).
Helen Jarvis, who was friends with Svay Ken and Ingrid, sees this focus on fleeting moments as one of the great qualities of Svay Ken’s work. “Every single incident is a small incident, and this is Svay Ken’s genius, to take something that seems small and to interpret it, to enshrine it and to have it live with us and to see it through his eyes from that moment,” she said.
Accordingly, this slice-of-life artwork harbours few hidden messages but instead focuses on providing insight into human emotions. Objects are secondary, rendered in rough, hurried brushstrokes or broad washes of colour. But faces are depicted in careful, realistic detail, their expressions carrying the weight of their subjects’ inner thoughts.
As in Svay Ken’s earlier paintings of rural life, the composition of these later paintings often treads the line between the real and the surreal, sometimes bordering on the cartoonlike.
In the painting Typing, Ingrid – her face a picture of concentration blended with pleasure at doing a favour for a friend – sits in a chair entering Svay Ken’s CV into a computer. How do we know she is typing a CV? Svay Ken has helpfully included the contents of the document in a stream of words that runs through the middle of the painting, much like expository text in a comic book.
There are no tricks here. Svay Ken simply uses the most expedient method to tell the story of the moment. As Jarvis points out, this simplicity of approach can be taken as a sign of the artist’s genius, but it is also one of the reasons why he has been branded by critics as naive. The tag is not intended to be slanderous. Naive art has been widely recognised at a “legitimate” genre to the extent that some art schools are now, paradoxically, teaching the technique of the untaught technique.
Nonetheless, Lydia Parusol, the art manager of Meta House, continues to carry the flag of resistance against attempts to pigeonhole Svay Ken’s art.
“People outside Cambodia say he’s categorised under naive painting but he was really just focused on beauty, on a very simple and clear and upfront portrayal of daily life in Cambodia,” Parusol said. “He has a very clear contemporary Cambodian artistic identity.”
“Svay Ken is the pioneer in the visionary field of art in Cambodia,” Svay Sanuch added. “These paintings simply show the story of his friendship with Ingrid. Whenever he got to know anybody, he was a good friend forever.”