May 1, 2015 1:00 pm JST
Contemporary art

Creativity blooms in Myanmar, along with democracy

NOBUYUKI GOHARA, Nikkei staff writer

San Minn sits at his home in Yangon. His paintings often touch on social themes. (Photo by Chinatsu Hyodo)

YANGON -- In Myanmar, the contemporary art scene has sprung to life as the country becomes more democratic. Under decades of repressive military rule, artists honed both their techniques and their talent for evading censors. Now they have greater freedom to let loose their creative impulses.

     "The censors showed rich imagination, indeed. They read unintended messages in my pictures," said one wry 64-year-old artist, San Minn.  Sitting in his bedroom-studio in an old apartment house in the center of Yangon, San Minn tells how one of his paintings was kept out of an exhibition. A government official told him the woman's portrait could not be shown because it was suggestive of Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Myanmar's then-banned pro-democracy movement. "I hadn't thought of such a thing at all," he said.

     Before long, he realized the official needed evidence to show his boss that he had done his job. "I devised the 'tactic' of deliberately putting questionable pictures among those to be screened for exhibition," San Minn said.

     Contemporary art exhibits were subject to censorship, starting in the 1960s, under a succession of military governments, although the level of censorship waxed and waned. According to San Minn, the restrictions remained in place until about the time a civilian-led government took over in 2011.

Out in the open

San Minn is a founding member of the Gangaw Village Art Group, which was set up in 1979 by students from Rangoon Arts and Sciences University (now the University of Yangon).  A number of leading lights in Myanmar's contemporary art world hail from the group, including Po Po, whose works were shown at the Singapore Biennale in 2013-2014.

     San Minn's works are replete with odd juxtapositions of human and animal forms -- people crowned with animal heads, weapons made up of body parts. He prefers to work in primary colors, applying acrylics to canvass. His paintings are highly symbolic and certainly open to interpretation.

     At the moment, San Minn is working on a portrait of Gen. Aung San, Burma's independence leader. This year marks the centennial of his birth.  Under the junta, the picture could be seen as subversive, reminding viewers of his daughter Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, the opposition party she leads. 

     "We can now paint more diverse pictures than before," said San Minn. "Artists should actively challenge."

The art of doing

Performance art is becoming more popular in Myanmar. One of its pioneers is Moe Satt, 31, an artist and curator who often appears in symbolic places -- in front of a bronze statue of Gen. Aung San in Yangon, or at a lake with a view of the golden Shwedagon Pagoda. In traditional costume, Moe Satt re-enacts a play he performed as a child. "I want to link my nostalgic, personal memories with a larger history," he said.  He often performs abroad as well. Last November he visited Japan.

     For Moe Satt, performance art is also a means of asking what we mean by "public."  "Public-ness is not what is given by the government, but what people create together," he said. "I think we have the right to do something in public spaces. As an artist, I want to actively suggest what we can do."

     In Myanmar, public art education mainly deals with traditional crafts and performing arts, and there are few opportunities for people to learn about contemporary art. Private art galleries, which became more common in the 2000s, are playing a role in supporting modern artists.

     River Gallery opened in central Yangon in 2005. About 30 artists are affiliated with the gallery, including Aung Ko, who creates works by combining various media, including painting, photography and sculpture. With democratization, Myanmar artists can get more information on trends in art overseas, something they had little awareness of in the past, said Gill Pattison from New Zealand, the gallery's owner. She predicts more and more local artists will be working in the international arena in the future. 

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