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Painter May Have Passed, But Works Endure

Even though painter Svay Ken passed away late last year, his works remain popular, especially among foreigners, because they are thought to trace daily life with a deep moral sense.

Svay Ken, who died Dec. 11, 2008, at the age of 76, painted on stretched canvas in three different sizes, in works that meant different things to different people.

“He simply painted the world around him,” Bradford Edwards, an American art curator who is holding a tribute exhibition of Svay Ken’s work in Phnom Penh on Friday, told VOA Khmer. “He painted his daily life, and that’s what is so significant about Svay Ken.”

Foreigners and Cambodians alike deserve to see Svay Ken’s work, he said, not only because the paintings are beautiful, but because they were created by “a deep and sensitive human being.”

The exhibition, which will be held at the Java Café and Gallery, is a “direct reflection of the community’s intimate involvement in the life of Svay Ken,” Edwards said in statement. “This exhibition is about people coming together to celebrate one man’s life and work, an exceptional man, an extraordinary painter who documented what he saw around him. Svay Ken might have stopped breathing, but his artwork and his effect on people around him will fill all of us with love and hope and warmth forever.”

In interviews, Svay Ken’s family members expressed thanks for the exhibition, saying it could help spread the artist’s growing reputation.

Svay Ken, who was self taught, displayed his work at many exhibitions in the country and in the region. In his life, he produced between 1,200 and 1,500 paintings, family members said, and about 80 percent of them sold, to clients who were mainly foreigners. The works fetched prices between $200 and $1,000 before he died.

Svay Ken’s youngest son, Svay Piseth, said he hoped the government would promote his father’s paintings.

San Sam An, head of the department of plastic arts and handicrafts for the Ministry of Culture, said he was asking the ministry’s leaders to print a biography of the artist.

“And we may ask our leaders to name him as a hero of artists,” he said.

Svay Ken’s death inspired his son-in-law, Ouk Sakhan, 53, and granddaughter, Ouk Sochivy, 24, to become painters themselves. The father-daughter pair paint original works each day together at the Phnom Penh home of Svay Ken, hoping to sell them for $100 or $200.

Ouk Sochivy, who learned for four months under Svay Ken before his death, said she will continue to paint until people stop buying her work.

“I want to be as famous as my grandfather,” she said.