from The New York Times,
2001. from The New York Times, July 9, 2001. The same article appeared
in the International Hearld Tribune (July 10, 2001) and the Bangkok
Post (July 22, 2001).
One Cambodian’s ‘Life of struggle,’
in 128 Scenes
by Seth Mydans
PHNOM PENH — So far, there have been 128 events
in Svay Ken's life, almost all of them unremarkable. He shined shoes
at a hotel. He carried suitcases. He got married. He labored under
the Khmer Rouge. He returned to the hotel. He sent his children to
school. He mourned his wife when she died. And one other thing. At
the age of 60, nine years ago, he decided to paint pictures. He needed
money, he said, and so "one day I just started painting."
He showed his pictures to the foreigners at the hotel.
"Some of the foreigners liked my paintings, some not," he
said. "But the people who worked with me at the hotel, they said,
'These are terrible.'" Unschooled, naive, prosaic, there seemed
little of art in his pictures. But they were oddly charming, surprisingly
magnetic. People began to buy them.
And then last year another unusual thing happened.
When his wife, Tith Yun, fell ill and died, Mr. Svay Ken found himself
in the grip of a new compulsion. He had to tell her story —
"Tith Yun was born on Nov. 7, 1941, in the year
of the snake," he wrote. "Tith Yun became my wife, and it
is in memory of her that I write this account of her life and the
family that we made together."
There are millions of stories just like his in Cambodia,
ordinary lives with a bloody gash in the middle from 1975 to 1979.
That was when the Communist Khmer Rouge ruled the country, causing
the deaths of more than a million people. But this is a silent land
where few people talk about the past. Like Mr. Svay Ken, most see
themselves as ordinary and unimportant and their sufferings as too
common to be noted. They prefer to bury their pain. Mr. Svay Ken said
he has no idea what made him different, what drove him to record his
life, in words and then in an extraordinary series of paintings.
"After my wife died, I came out of the hospital,
and I didn't feel good." he said. "I just kept on thinking
about my life. It was bothering me. So 1 wrote it down. I wrote to
make it easy in my head."
When they read his story, Ly Daravuth and Ingrid
Muan, directors of the small Reyum Gallery here, urged him to tell
it again in pictures. It took him a year. The pictures in oils are
on display now at the gallery — 128 of them — as straightforward
and ingenuous as the artist himself.
"There is an immediacy to them." Ms. Muan
said. "He didn't take months to think about each picture. They
are like instant pictures from his memories."
There has been no description quite like this of
what it has been like to live through the past half-century of upheaval
in Cambodia. Apart from several accounts by overseas Cambodians, there
is almost no indigenous literature of the country's tumultuous recent
past. And the accounts that do exist focus almost entirely on the
sharp edges of history.
Mr. Svay Ken is a poet of the mundane, of the small
moments that make up a life, no matter how big the history that surrounds
them. Even his descriptions of the Khmer Rouge years focus on cooking,
finding shelter and caring for his children. Running in fear through
the streets of Phnom Penh as the Khmer Rouge soldiers entered the
city, he stopped for a glass of water — and stops in his painted
narrative to record the moment.
"It's interesting that the mundane parts of
his life take up more space than the Khmer Rouge years. Mr. Ly Daravuth
said. "There's a before and an after. In his pictures, going
to buy plates after he was married is as important as the Khmer Rouge
time." And once it has been memorialized, each of these moments
is as precious as a pebble plucked from a beach, polished, handled,
examined and treasured.
"We went to buy plates for our new household
at a store south of the New Market in Phnom Penh," reads the
title of one picture.
Next comes, "Tith Yun carried her basket and
scale to Doeum Kor Market," followed by, "We awoke at 2
in the morning to steam sticky rice cakes,'' then, "Tith Yun
carried the steamed rice cakes to sell at O'Russey Market while I
prepared the children for school," and, "Tith Yun sold her
rice cakes alongside other vendors in front of the market."
The snapshots of his life continue in measured order
as Cambodia slides into the grip of war.
"Rockets fell in the city almost every day and
every night," and, "At that time, the price of food rose
very high. We couldn't afford to buy Khmer rice, and so we ate only
coarse-grained rice provided by United States donations," and,
"Tith Yun asked me if she could go to sell silk in Ream.''
In the interview, Mr. Svay Ken insisted that there
was no moral to the story of his life. "I just sat and followed
the flow,'' he said. "I wanted to show my life. I wanted to show
it as a life of struggle, and that I made it through.''
But a mystery remains at the core of his story: his
compulsion to remember and record and to turn his life into art. Although
he is supported by his grown sons now, he said, he cannot seem to
"I don't need to work," he said, "but
my hand won't keep still."
His hand was busy throughout the interview in his
small home, where stacked paintings compete for space with cooking
pots and a large crib. As his visitor scribbled his words in a notebook,
Mr. Svay Ken scribbled too, in a notebook of his own.
Why? "I can't keep it all in my head,"
he said. " take notes so I can remember.''