Singapore. “You see this?” says Sareth Svay, holding
up a wine glass. “I can design something like this. I can design it and
make it beautiful.
“But it means nothing to me,” he goes on, lowering the glass.
“You know why? Because I don’t feel anything about it. There’s no heart
Sareth, at 43, cuts a stylish figure in a sports blazer in the
bar at the legendary Raffles hotel – home of the Singapore Sling – on
this balmy January night. It’s a far cry from his humble beginnings
growing up in a refugee camp in Thailand, and the energy and effusive
friendliness that has endeared him to his peers and protégés in the art
scene in his native Cambodia emanates from him in spades tonight.
Sareth, the concept of “heart” is important. It’s about making a
meaningful impact through art – in his case, running the gamut from
sculpture to installation to performance art – by tackling prickly
social and political issues.
Twenty-four hours later, Sareth was practically glowing. On
Tuesday night, the one-time child refugee was crowned the best emerging
artist in Asia at the prestigious Prudential Eye Awards at Singapore’s
Marina Bay Sands, at a gala event that also featured two rising
Indonesian acts among the finalists.
The annual awards, now in their third year, aim to shine a light
on talented but little-known artists from across Asia, and the field of
nominees this year reflected the region’s creative diversity.
“Sareth Svay’s story is incredible and inspiring,” said Niru
Ratnam, the director of the Prudential Eye Awards. “His art work draws
on a very specific context but transcends that. He produces works that
are funny, poetic and confident. He is a worthy winner of the Prudential
Sareth was earlier in the evening named the best emerging artist
using sculpture, one of five categories featuring three finalists each.
The other categories were painting, installation, photography, and
digital/video, each with a $20,000 prize.
Manish Nai of India won in the painting category, while Shumon
Ahmed – one of two artists from Bangladesh among the 15 finalists – took
home the prize for photography. The digital/video award went to
Vietnam’s Trinh Thi Nguyen, while in installation, Taiwan’s Huang Po
Chih emerged the winner over Aditya Novali and indieguerillas, both from Indonesia.
For winning the overall best emerging artist prize, Sareth
received an additional $30,000 and an opportunity for a solo exhibition
at the world-renowned Saatchi Gallery in London.
It’s been a long journey for Sareth from the refugee camp on the
Thai border, where his family fled the murderous rule of the Khmer
Rouge. Today, he runs a grass-roots initiative to train and empower more
than a thousand handicraft artisans in the scenic town of Siem Reap
that he calls home.
Design is something that comes naturally to him, but contemporary
art will always be where his heart is. Perhaps just as important is the
pride and satisfaction he takes in his art: “We work in order to eat,”
he says. “So if you just work, work, work and don’t eat, then what’s the