Open sesame

As Myanmar is drawn into the world, its artists are experimenting with abstract art forms and modern techniques, writes Rosie Gogan-Keogh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 July, 2013, 5:06pm

Shortly after the release of Myanmar democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010, a national portrait competition was held in the country. Artist Khin Zaw Latt entered two works: one of his mother, and another titled Just a Portrait that depicts the opposition leader made up of tiny images of her assassinated father, General Aung San.

It was the first time since Myanmar started its journey of democratic reform after five decades of isolation that an artist had painted "The Lady" for a public exhibition. The art censors checked every painting - as they still do now before an exhibition is opened - and when they came to this dramatic red piece, they were not sure what to do. Previously, they had banned anything with political references. Finally, the head censor said: "It's just a portrait." The show was granted permission.

A lot of the artists are not overtly political, they are just painting society. Change hasn't trickled down through society. 
Professor Ian Holliday

It was a groundbreaking moment for Myanmar's artists who were testing the boundaries of censorship in this new era.

A growing number of galleries had been set up over the past decade: in the early 1990s, there was only one private gallery in Yangon; there are now about 30 galleries in the former capital and 60 across the country to showcase the works of artists from this impoverished nation who have persevered through its days of military rule. "[Artists] have been under-appreciated," says Gill Pattison, who founded the River Gallery in an annex of Strand Hotel in Yangon in 2005.

Media attention briefly focused on the former pariah state's galleries recently when, in a bizarre and slightly jarring move, Khin Nyunt, former prime minister, intelligence chief and notorious torturer, threw open the doors of his home to the public as an arts space, café and souvenir shop.

Speaking at the space in a leafy compound in suburban Yangon, gallery manager Thazin Myint Thaw says of Khin Nyunt: "He wants to exhibit every kind of painting, so he allows artists to show what they want free of charge, to help bring Myanmar's art to the world."

The works on show are by a trio of older artists who call themselves the Golden Triangle. Impressionist rural landscapes and views of temples dot the walls of the space. Myanmar's isolation meant the art scene has developed with relatively few external influences, and most art remain traditional, like the Golden Triangle works. Vibrant colours are common, but the use of experimental techniques or mixed media is limited.

"In Myanmar, most people think a painting is only done in oil canvas," says Nyein Chan Su, an abstract artist and co-founder of Studio Square, in uptown Yangon. "Some artists are trying to experiment with new media, but local people do not like abstract or symbolism, and most buyers want realist, expressionist or Impressionist art."

"We are missing the modern techniques," agrees Tin Win, an artist and owner of the Beikthano Gallery. His works - of Buddhist monks, ethnic women or a peasant scene - are embellished with gold leaf, a technique that harks back to Buddhist temples and Gustav Klimt's figures.

"Contemporary art is such a visual celebration of life in Myanmar," says Richard Streiter, a former art professor at New York's Pratt School of Art who became involved in Myanmar's art scene after a visit 11 years ago. He supported local artists by selling Myanmese works in New York - art was one of the areas not affected by US economic sanctions applied to punish the military junta.

Streiter has bought 10 or so paintings of Aung San Suu Kyi, but while he admits "there is a lot more freedom now", he says that 95 per cent of the works he comes across are traditional.

Pattison agrees. "There hasn't been a dramatic and obvious change in subject matter, artists are not plunging into subjects that were forbidden from them."

When Professor Ian Holliday presented an exhibition of his private collection of Myanmese paintings at the University of Hong Kong in May, many of the works were realist and rural.

"I am fascinated by how artists are capturing the transition," Holliday says. "Everyone may be fascinated with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein, but there is still an underlying agrarian reality."

Seventy per cent of Myanmar's estimated 60 million people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods - and the country's art reflects this. "A lot of the artists are not overtly political, they are just painting society," says Holliday. "Change hasn't trickled down through society, so it's a legitimate interpretation."

However, there is a wave of younger artists experimenting with more abstract forms and techniques, and a new generation of performance artists and others producing video installations.

Artist Moe Satt has been running Beyond Pressure, a performance art festival, since 2008. He has run into difficulties with the censors and funding throughout that time, but the festival has mostly operated smoothly and grown every year. At Art Basel Hong Kong this year, he took part in a group show at Osage Gallery.

In April, Mrat Lunn Htwann, a performance artist from the strife-torn Rakhine state, and American writer Nathalie Johnston turned a derelict house on Yangon's Strand Road into a temporary art space for two months. There, they held documentary workshops, performances and exhibitions, and filmed each artist who took part in an effort to document these largely unknown artists.

Johnston is trying to record the works that are emerging from the country at this critical time through her website, Myanmar Art Evolution.

On a recent trip to Yangon, representatives from Hong Kong's Asia Art Archive took part in a day-long immersion tour of the art scene in Myanmar's biggest city. The carefully curated itinerary took the group of Young Global Leaders, who were visiting as part of the World Economic Forum, around some of the leading galleries in the city - and posed the question of what these connected, successful people could do for contemporary art in this Southeast Asian nation.

The result: an independent art archive is being proposed by the Hong Kong NGO to store and collect works that have until recently been largely hidden from the world.

But documentation and exposure are not the only hurdles the artists face as their country hurtles towards modernity. At a conference on Myanmar's heritage in June, the deputy culture minister acknowledged that "Myanmar has challenges and opportunities", and that the country "needs to balance between economic and cultural development".

The reality is that the present quasi-civilian government has bigger priorities than helping to organise or fund the arts. There's no national gallery, no foundation, and little or no funding in a public or private capacity. There is a limited infrastructure for artists and official training is possible through just two under-resourced public institutions.

The Myanmese population with disposable incomes also generally have other priorities, and there is little tradition of buying art purely for decorative purposes. There's just a handful of passionate collectors in the country and little art criticism: critical thought was not encouraged in the public education system.

Prices have been kept unnaturally low largely because of the underdeveloped and sanctioned bank system, with paintings going for as little as US$250 to US$1,500. With bank machines now present in most big cities and credit card use possible, impulse purchases have been made possible in ways they were not before. Visitor numbers are rising, including more business people, NGO workers and art professionals.

With a 30 per cent surge in visitors to the country last year, a new art market has been created.

"The fear is that with Myanmar opening up some artists may go the way many Vietnamese artists went," says Karin Weber, a gallerist in Hong Kong who imports art from Myanmar. Vietnam has become known for its forgeries and copies.

"[The influx of foreigners] has been a big stimulant to the art scene," says Pattison.

However, prices do not reflect this yet and a balance must be found between marketing to tourists and creating a genuine contemporary movement.


Five must-see galleries in Yangon:

River Gallery

Owned by Gill Pattison who has been championing Myanmese art since 2005. River Two, its second location near Strand Hotel, will open in early August. The new space will allow for more rotating exhibitions, installations and performances.

Pansodan Gallery

Myanmese artist Aung Soe Min and his American wife, Nance, have created a hive of activity for a growing number of artists and expatriates. They hope to one day establish an artists' village outside the city.

Nawaday Tharlar

Not to be confused with the gallery of a similar name run by former intelligence chief Khin Nyunt, Nawaday Thingalar is an offshoot of the Pansodan clan and exhibits a younger wave of artists in a tiny apartment on Yaw Min Gyi Road. There are monthly open-mic nights.

Inya Art Gallery

Founded in 1989, this gallery was for a long time the only independent artist-run gallery of its kind. It now displays the works of a group of 20 artists on rotation.

New Zero Gallery

A non-profit artists' studio that provides materials and a base for anyone who wants to join. Upstairs boasts one of the best collections of books on art around.

Rosie Gogan-Keogh