Tradition & Divinity

Imago Mundi

Contemporary Artists from Myanmar

Turning Point
The hospital became cold and quiet as the dark shadows of the evening thickened and reigned over the whole environment. The low moans of the patients, rats scavenging for food in the garbage cans, the dim lights of the corridors and the putrid smells from the wards drifting in the air, filled the place. Almost all of the doctors, old and young, rushed to their private clinics for their evening work. Back to the hospital, a male intern wandered through the corridors. A rusty gurney came in his direction. The old man on the gurney had long sideburns and a prominent nose. He was wearing a long coat riddled with holes caused by sparks of embers from smoking cheroots. He slipped in and out of consciousness. He took a wallet out of his pocket and put it back in again. He did this for several times. “New admission, doctor!” The janitor pushing the gurney called out to the intern. When he saw the old man’s face, he was shocked. He whispered: “This is Bagyi Aung Soe!” It was the end scene of the life of Bagyi Aung Soe, the father of Myanmar modernism. It was July 1990 – two years after the countrywide uprising had ended the rule of Ne Win’s socialist government.

Aung Myint Oo - Cloudy Day (2016)


Myanmar art can be considered to have started with mural depictions of Jataka tales on the walls of cave temples. Such murals may have existed since the time of the Pyu city-states and the Kingdom of Arakan. However, the murals that are left intact today are from the 12th century Pagan. Myanmar art gradually developed and flourished on the walls of temples and palaces throughout the history. It has influenced and has been influenced by China on the north, Thailand on the east, and India on the west. The British invasion of Myanmar and the consequent British rule led to a sea-change for Myanmar art. Western art came into the country and had an enormous influence on local art, moving it from cave temples and palaces
to monasteries in small villages.

Wei Chit Ko - Untitled (2016)

Bogalay Htay Lwin - Untitled (2015)

On the aftermath of the Second World War, Myanmar, like other colonies, won independence. At the same time, traditional art, British academic art and Western modernism merged to provide impetus for Myanmar modernism. This is where Bagyi Aung Soe came in. He led the transformation process and laid a foundation for modernist Myanmar art. Bagyi Aung Soe studied art at Santiniketan School founded by Indian writer and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore. After graduation, he came back home and started a modernist art movement that utilizes Myanmar art aesthetic and principles. Cubism, Surrealism and abstract art had an immense influence on how modernist Myanmar artists made art in those days. These artists organized their exhibitions without much help from collectors or private funders. They studied modernist art movements around the globe and engaged in well- informed discussions and debates.

Aung - Untitled (2016)

Min Wae Aung - Untitled (2016)


The ever-increasing momentum of modernist Myanmar art hit against the Burmese Way to Socialism, a political philosophy adopted by the Revolutionary Council that seized power in 1962. Watch groups composed of ward-level authorities in mufti and party members sat and watched crowds at markets and junctions. They stopped young people with flared jeans and long hair, and cut their hair with scissors. This incident tells the best story of how young people in those days were forced to not think, create and develop freely. Modernist Myanmar art had a hard time coming out of repressive times. An artist, now and then, would come upon an art book at a second-hand bookshop on Pansodan, and the book may have contained pictures of Picasso’s work or the work of other modernists of the day. The artist would absorb all he could from the book and pass it on to another artist who would do the same. This was how modernist Myanmar artists educated themselves. The censorship body of the socialist regime cracked down on literature, film, theatre and modernist art considering the arts the regime’s arch-enemies. The censors rubber-stamped “NOT APPROPRIATE FOR SHOWING” on the surfaces of many paintings.

Tamalar - Tree vellers (2016)

Nay Aung Shu - Untitled (2016)


The Burmese Way to Socialism met its demise after the 1988 uprising. What replaced the previous regime was a half-conglomerate and half- dictatorial military government. This government held a gun in one hand and black money in the other. Because they invited some foreign investors in and worked with them, one could say that they opened the door slightly. Some Myanmar artists decided that it was time to stop discussing art at teashops and to start their own galleries, which they did. They also initiated a relationship with the international art community. Some foreign artists came in through the slightly open door to reach out to Myanmar artists. Some Myanmar artists let go of their tight grip on modernism and integrated in their work the imagery reflected on their senses by their social environment. Books exported from overseas and the Internet helped link up isolated Myanmar artists with the rest of the world. This period marked the beginning of postmodernism in Myanmar.

Win Thar Thandar - Wild (2016)

Tay Zar Lynn - The Family (2016)


During the same period, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned in her house for many years.

Kyaw Lin - Untitled (2015)

Aung Naing Maung - Untitled (2016)


The expression “contemporary art” was the most discussed and contested subject in the Myanmar art scene in 2000s. Art education had its place within institutions during the British rule and the period of parliamentary democracy after the world war. During the rule of the socialist government, art education moved to bookstalls and teashops in Yangon and Mandalay, meaning that pioneering artists handed down the modernist tradition to their successors at sidewalk teashops or bookstalls through informal discussions. State-run art schools banned modern art and did not allow students to discuss the subject. Artists mostly learned new ideas from small debates and discussions, and created contemporary art utilizing any knowledge available to them. They paid substantial amount of attention to immediate social and political issues and reacted to them through their work. Meanwhile, the body of censorship working in cooperation with the Special Branch took even more severe measures against artists. Contemporary Myanmar art endured such dark times and prevailed between 2000 and 2010.

Marlar - Untitled (2016)

Maw Thu Da Nu - Reflection (2016)


Now the year is 2016 and the country has changed its direction. 22 years ago, in a sizzling summertime as now, a white van was seen standing still at a jetty near a village called Anyar-su on the border between Yangon and Irrawaddy Divisions. Inside the hot van was Aung San Suu Kyi sitting quietly and staring intently in front of her. The car had already been there for three days. There were coils of barbwires lying zigzag in front of the car and on the road. Behind the barbwires were a group of soldiers armed to the teeth. A monk came with a wet quilted blanket and spread it over the roof of the car. A soldier stopped passing cars and shouted, “Roll down all the windows. Don’t wave hands. Don’t drop food or anything.”

Hla Tun - Untitled (2016)

Min Zayar Oo - Apple in Colours (2016)

However, everything has changed today. The summer of 2016 is different. A group of politicians led by Aung San Suu Kyi have become the new government. A country that has been cut off from the rest of the world for 54 years has finally opened its door entirely. Myanmar art has also become reconnected to the international art community after years of disconnection. In the past, the military regime and the body of censorship attacked freedom of expression and built a wall between artists and the public. Today is the day this wall is pulled down and today is the day a positive turning point emerges for Myanmar art.


Aung Min
Writer, Filmmaker

Myint Aung - Bagan (2016)

Credits: Story

Art Direction, Photography and Production
—Fabrica

Curator
—Neeraj Ajmani

Organization
—Valentina Granzotto
—Barbara Liverotti

Editorial coordination
—Enrico Bossan

Texts
—Luciano Benetton
—Neeraj Ajmani
—Aung Min

Editing and translation
—Emma Cole
—Maung Day
—Giorgia De Luca
—Sara Favilla
—Chiara Longhi
—Pietro Valdatta

Art Direction
—Marcello Piccinini

Photography
—Marco Zanin

Production
—Marco Pavan

Cover
—Zay Zay Htut (Today Light #1)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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