Asia Art Archive's Mobile Library travels to Myanmar

As Myanmar enjoys relaxing of censorship, project provides art books

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 February, 2015, 3:36pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 February, 2015, 4:36pm

Scholarly tomes on art history and theory with titles such as Minor Transnationalism and Lacan Reframed are unlikely to send a frisson of excitement through even the most studious of gatherings in Hong Kong.

But in Myanmar, eager students and artists are lapping them up in the five-month Mobile Library project, which is co-organised by Asia Art Archive, the Hong Kong organisation that records and promotes the development of Asian contemporary art.

"We have never seen so many of these books in Myanmar before," says Khin Zaw Latt, artist and co-founder of the Myanmar Art Resource Centre and Archive (Marca), Asia Art Archive's project partner in Yangon.

"Art students are hungry for them. They read them in the mobile library, and then they contact me on Facebook to discuss what they read."

Myanmar is a much freer country since the changes that began in 2010: democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, the military junta held elections and US President Barack Obama lifted most sanctions during his historic visit in 2012.

Under a civilian government that promises a free press and freedom of expression, many exiled journalists and artists came home.

But a brutal regime had ruled the nation of 53 million for nearly five decades, and the wounds are still fresh. Susanna Chung Yuk-man, Asia Art Archive's head of learning and participation, worked in Yangon to help get the project ready, and noticed there was a deep rift in the art community.

On one side are those who had obeyed the rules and stuck to banal landscapes; on the other the avant-garde who worked outside the system.

Htein Lin's prison paintings Death Row and Self Torture for 6 Years show that the price of nonconformity was high.

It wasn't just the subject matter and style that led to paintings being banned during that time - censors frowned upon the use of certain colours such as red, seeing it as the colour of protest. Abstract art - which forces viewers to think - was also banned.

All exhibitions were screened by censors, although the Myanmar government did not have the resources that mainland China has to track down subversive art, says Ian Holliday, a political scientist at University of Hong Kong and the co-curator of last year's Hong Kong exhibition "Banned in Burma: Painting Under Censorship".

Khin Zaw Latt, a 35-year-old arts graduate from the conservative National University of Arts and Culture, remembers a university library that only had books on long-dead painters such as Van Gogh and Monet, and books on how to draw.

Up until a few years ago, censors read every page of foreign books entering the country, fearing that the public would develop unsanctioned views about other countries.

"When we were growing up, the news on TV said only good things happened in China and only bad things happened in America," he says. "The government closed every door."

He was bemused on a recent visit to find the content of the library had barely changed since his student days. Contemporary art was still missing from the curriculum, too.

When we were growing up, the news on TV said only good things happened in China and only bad things happened in America
Khin Zaw Latt, graduate

It is understandable that the more cautious members of the art community, like those who teach in state universities, tread warily. After all, not all the shackles are off: the Ministry of Culture still approves each foreign visitor entering the campus of a Myanmar university. The painting of nudes is still banned, and artists have also been told not to poke fun at President Thein Sein, a former lieutenant-general and official of the junta who oversaw a constitutional change in 2014 that banned Suu Kyi from running in this year's election.

Foreign art books remain hard to find even without censorship, as they are expensive and there is no market for them. Also, internet connection is so slow it is virtually impossible to watch videos online or download large multimedia files.

That is where the Mobile Library project comes in. This is the third time the Asia Art Archive has taken art books to a country in the region where much of the population does not have access to up-to-date information on contemporary art. Vietnam was the first, in 2011, and Sri Lanka followed in 2013.

Like Myanmar, both countries could also do with the Asia Art Archive's archiving expertise because years of censorship and civil war destroyed proper records of local contemporary art developments.

About 450 different books were sent to Yangon in November. Over a five-month period, they are due to be moved to venues in Yangon and Mandalay. The books will be kept by Marca when the project ends in March.

Khin Zaw Latt, who has set up a non-profit school for children from poor rural households near Yangon, knows the subversive power of knowledge. "One of my first trips abroad was in 2006, when I went to Hong Kong for an exhibition that included some of my works.

"I saw contemporary Chinese art and Vietnamese art for the first time. It was really quite a shock to me," he says.

Good art, he realised, was not just about technique and the amount of time an artist spent on the canvas. After recognising the potency of ideas and symbols in art, he started producing more challenging works that could only be shown abroad until recently.

The Mobile Library also includes workshops and panel discussions that the organisers hope will create new, long-term relationships in the divided art community in Myanmar.

Chung was told by those belonging to the "avant-garde" camp that calling the National University of Arts and Culture - part of the "establishment" - would be a waste of time.

"They were convinced that the university would not approve of what we do. But it turns out the university was very eager to be involved, and even provided one of the venues for our books," she says.

There were other surprises. Chung encountered no trouble when the books were shipped to Yangon, and Marca managed to get the Ministry of Culture's approval for all the foreign participants to attend events held on university campus.

"Vietnam in 2011 was less friendly. Our books had to be sneaked in as hand luggage because they might have been confiscated by customs officers," she says.

"There were plain-clothed police spying on our events and some local organisers received threats. We had to drop an event to protect our local partners."

About 500 visitors have used the mobile library in Myanmar, an impressive number given the academic nature of the books.

The next Mobile Library is in 2016 and the contenders are Cambodia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

"Our role is to knock on every door and hope that we help establish long-term and sustainable relationships," says Chung.