Updated: Jun 29, 2022
Changes and Uncertainties in Contemporary Myanmar Art *
written by Aung Myat Htay
Photo: A girl playing the social instrument at Yangon Art and Heritage Festival 2017.
Curators’ workshops in Southeast Asia organized by the Japan Foundation Asia Center have been an important new step for the Myanmar art scene. These workshops have provided new experience, new knowledge and new technical skills. In Southeast Asia, Myanmar has lagged behind other member countries in terms of gathering data on its post-20th-century art history. This has created challenges when it comes to making comparative analyses. We are talking about a country which, despite having a strong history of art and culture, has not seen these aspects develop as much as they should have in the age of globalization. The country embarked on modernist and conceptual art movements in the 90’s like the other Southeast Asian countries, but development has stagnated between generations and the integration of art into the education system has also been weak.
Most art exhibitions in the country are organized informally and in a conventional,dated manner. Curators do not have a prominent role in the contemporary Myanmar art scene and, with so much uncertainty about their status and future, there are not many professional curators. There are people who have substantial knowledge of art history, who can manage art galleries, and who have established galleries but they are not functioning on a professional level with enough skills and expertise. Therefore, exhibitions lack fresh curatorial ideas and interesting, well-thought out displays.Additionally, if someone chooses to work as both a curator and a full-time artist, they face many difficulties.
Photo: After Art & Literature Exhibition at former Myanmar Tourism Oﬃce Building under conservation by the foreign Company. Photo by Writer.
In Myanmar, the role of a curator still needs to be discussed and debated. Myanmar artists have not fully acknowledged or understood the importance of art criticism and curating. Some confuse curating with evaluation of artworks. There are large spaces, buildings and galleries but these are not equipped to offer to put on contemporary art exhibitions. Art exhibitions have not received their deserved place in the social psyche. Many people do not see why there should be designated spaces or buildings for contemporary art. As a curator/artist, I see these challenges:There is still little support from the government for art and culture, and as a result,people in the art scene are not equipped with enough knowledge of contemporary art, and that includes theoretical, intellectual and technical understanding of contemporary art forms.Due to bureaucratic weaknesses, the performance of the art council has been mediocre, and art and cultural policies have not changed or evolved much since 1962.People still feel inhibited from working with foreigners, whether on a personal or organizational basis. This may be related to the differences in language, level of education and access to professional opportunities, and may also be caused by the nationalist sentiment that some people have. Communication and cooperation between young artists who studied art outside of the country and those who did their studies inside the country are next to non-existent.Artists who studied art abroad do not have enough opportunities and space in the local art scene, partly because people have been taught to have contempt for foreign education. They have found it difficult to challenge or criticize the way things are done in the local art scene. People lack understanding of new approaches that these artists attempt to bring in, and there may also be fear of being dominated by these foreign-educated artists. Most artists with progressive minds have become indifferent to the local art scene and prioritize showing their works outside of the country. Artists who have made a name in the international art scene and art market also sometimes try to create distance between themselves and other local artists.This has affected the development of the local art scene.Curatorial studies, arts management and arts research are not taught at universities,leading to the continuation of old approaches. Artists are only used to making arton an individual basis, and are not familiar with collective art practices. They have very limited knowledge of community art, do not understand the importance of arts management and have doubts over the role of curators.Faced with these challenges, working as a curator in Myanmar comes with risks. Afew curators are trying to lay a foundation, but have not gone very far at the present moment, and so art curating in Myanmar has not developed much.
Photo: People enjoy the public art at the Yangon Art and Heritage Festival 2017.
How to Set New Standards for Curating Art
Art exhibitions organized in today’s Myanmar can be categorized as follows:
- Specific group exhibitions (students only, women only, members only etc.)- Exhibitions dedicated to a particular medium or technique (watercolor, traditional art, abstract art etc.)
- Exhibitions dedicated to specific formal themes (Beauty of Pagan temples,Myanmar landscapes, portraits etc.)
- Exhibitions of loose or casual groupings of artists (these exhibitions are often organized by the exhibiting group itself or by foreign curators under a common general theme like “beauty of our land”, political propaganda like portraits of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or as a regular annual show for a gallery) - Exhibitions that mark the opening of new spaces and galleries- Exhibitions organized to raise funds for a social cause or for a political campaign Most Myanmar artists tend to show their works in one of these types of exhibitions. Such exhibitions are more friendship- based than project-based, and do not have a central concept. Therefore, the works shown in these exhibitions do not necessarily dialog with each other or are not threaded together conceptually. Mostly, they are just a mess of a huge range of different subjects and styles, although some exhibitions may be dedicated to a common theme like women’s issues, civil war, peace,alleviation of poverty, freedom of expression and environmental degradation.
Art That Has Survived Social and Political Unrest
A researcher may find a lot of Myanmar paintings and sculptures depicting various typical subjects like monks or daily life or the local landscape, drawing on Impressionist and Expressionist techniques. Many of these artworks are largely decorative. There is an art market for these kinds of works and tourists purchase them. The state-run art institutions focus on teaching how to make artworks like these. Like the country itself, the art scene still lacks democratic and progressive thinking. Artists tend to make artworks to express their personal feelings, to promote traditional cultural aspects, to study nature, or to depict people instead of touching on urgent contemporary issues.During the military regime, artworks that depict such as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi,her father General Aung San, roses, guns and naked women were censored on an arbitrary basis. Having too much red color in a painting could put the artist in danger. Censors obviously did not understand art and made their judgments based on political reasons only. Some artists experimented with new media and approaches,finding different ways to make art to work around the censorship, and continue the same kind of practices today.
In a way, the effect of censorship also stived the development of the art scene because the artists focused so much on self-expression and resistance against the oppression.
Photo: Melting Boundaries, Exhibition for southeast asia curatorial workshop by JF.
Art That Has Broken Away from the Traditional
There has been experimentation and inventiveness throughout the history of Myanmar art. If we look back at the modernist phase of Myanmar art, we will see two major groups of artists. Modern art trends can first be seen around 1950 in Upper Burma. At this time, for example, the artist U Khin Maung (Bank) studied modern art from Europe and USA through distance education, and in turn passed on its lessons to his assistant artists (U) Paw Oo Thet and (U) Win Pe.Then in the lower Burma center at Yangon around 1960, a group of architects, film makers, painters and sculptors got together and founded the group called A.I(Architects Incorporated) by Khin Maung Yin, Bagyi Aung Soe and their friends, which became an art club or meeting point for modern art, a rare place within the old-fashioned mainstream art scene in town.
In the late 80’s and 90’s, students/artists from Yangon University made a major break -through with their artworks. Interestingly they were from various faculties of the university and not from any art school. Gangaw Village Art Group and Inya Artist Group are probably the most well-known groups of artists that emerged in this period.Contemporary art trends emerged in the following decades. Art festivals and ex-changes such as Beyond Pressure International Performance Art Festival, Blue Wind Art Festival, New Zero Multimedia Art Shows and so on were held. Artists who got engaged with these festivals and exhibitions were drawn to new ideas and art forms.However, reaching a wider audience and being part of the international art community were still a far-off thing.
We Need Art Collectives and Collaborations
It is rare to find people working as a collective in the Myanmar art scene, and not
many artists collaborate with each other. This is partly because the notion of art making as an individual thing has been taught widely among local artists, with an emphasis on personal space and expression in art. The political system that had been used in the country divided artists and created distrust; therefore, politics can also be considered a main reason. Historical and ongoing conicts between the hundred over ethnic groups in Myanmar has also isolated communities.Most social teachings center on maintaining traditional values and following the footsteps of the previous generation. Myanmar is a democracy hampered by the oldways of dictatorship. Art associations, art schools and foundations need to encourage collaboration. Collaborations will bring in new art practices and ideas, and will help lay a good foundation for contemporary art. The Immune System of the Present Myanmar Today, foreign investors are keeping a close watch on Myanmar. A horde of corporations, aid agencies, and other forms of organizations will come into the country. This will test the strength of the society, test how much people can cope with the changes or work with them.
Recently, an international NGO started talking about having an art fair that will be called Yangon Biennale, its main idea being to create a thriving commercial art market. This has led to an argument between local artists and the organization in question, in which local artists have demanded that the organization not use the name Yangon Biennale. This is an example of the current conditions.
The Myanmar art scene will start attracting a lot of business people and other organizations, like other Southeast Asian countries, and this will also bring opportunities to local artists to get larger exposure for their works. But local artists need to makewise decisions by weighing up their options. They need to examine who is benefitting and how. They also need to work to change the policies regarding art and culture. Hopefully, a significant number of independent art spaces will spring up, and there will be more investment from the government to support contemporary Myanmar art.
20, October 2017
By Aung Myat Htay
Artist/ Independent Curator. Former lecturer at University of Art & Culture, Yangon. firstname.lastname@example.org Translated from Burmese by Mg Day.
Edited by the Beverly Yong (Rogueart.asia)
* .. This article is from the curator book of “Condition Report” Southeast Asia Curatorial workshop by Japan Foundation Asia Center in 2016-2017.