Shortlist: Myanmar (Burma)

Isabel Ching, independent curator and PhD candidate, Heidelberg University
January 2017

Overview

The dissolution of the military junta in 2011 and Myanmar's rapid economic growth have facilitated the rise of curatorial and market interest in its ‘undiscovered’ and ‘undeveloped’ art scenes. The challenge at hand is to pin down a shortlist—one which marks out a textual terrain for introducing the contemporary and its evolution—amid the rapid transformations of Myanmar society and art scenes. Many may assume that Myanmar's current visibility in transnational contemporary art worlds is a recent triumph—a type of frame through which 'Myanmar art' acquires visibility and content globally, with a liberatory euphoria permeating its promotion. Yet the silences in current knowledge about modern and contemporary artistic production and circulation in/out of/through Myanmar significantly limit scientific and curatorial practices. Still, I hope that taken together, this group of texts can suggest paths for moving beyond the tired narratives of belatedness, isolation, and political oppression. These narratives must be taken apart to examine their validity and stakes, or even deliberately avoided for their reproduction of a passive ‘victim’ discourse that has permeated representations of art and artists from Myanmar.

As an introduction, this modest shortlist is intended to offer a range of accessible materials, mainly in English, for beginning researchers in a field about which little is known. It attempts to map an array of voices filtered through different disciplinary fields, practice angles, geographic locations, commercial entities, and public institutions. Despite the presumed isolation of Myanmar, the Anglophone writings have been produced by cultural agents operating inside and outside—and across—its borders. The activities of the diaspora also strain the borders of the nation-state as container for analysing 'Myanmar art'. Thus, it is proposed that ‘Myanmar art’ itself be problematised as a pre-given unit of investigation or figure of thought—to help make visible the agencies of artists and critics who sought to articulate local specificity, and those who adopted more cosmopolitan, universal, or emancipatory stances.

The establishment of the socialist state exacerbated the ideological tension between ‘post-impressionist’ styles taken up by small groups of artists and ‘realistic’ paradigms for art. Cultural discourses re-employed old binaries between West and East; between tradition and innovation; between art-for-art's sake and art for the people; along with accusations of individualism, degeneracy, anarchism, and cultural pollution. Operating against the background of the great tradition of Bagan art, ideas about how ‘Myanmar art’ and ‘Myanmar style’ should be positioned were earnestly deliberated by intellectuals, writers, and artists. Such struggles are particular but not exclusive—in that they are comparable and connected to arguments for and against modern art from varying points in time, by different parts of the world engaging with the intertwined project of nation-building and decolonisation. Following how ideas circulate, get emplaced, and depart is an underused method by those writing on the modern and contemporary art of Myanmar. The norm is to give stress to its isolation and contextual specificity. Yet it is striking how the social role of art was often debated in Myanmar in polemic terms that were nevertheless entangled with global histories of ideas. Such discourse structures reveal the challenges—both shared and particular—that artistic agents had to meet, resolve, and/or transform. The effects of these actions continue to branch out into the contemporary.

I have therefore drawn in a sampling of ‘art criticism’ and 'art history' texts in the Myanmar language. The social intermingling of artists, authors, and intellectuals over the decades have cross-fertilised ideas about art, the illustration of writers’ texts in periodicals and books, and publishing efforts to memorialise significant cultural figures and milestones in the face of general neglect by the state. Many writings can also be found within cultural and literary magazines such as Han Thit, Dagon, Shumawa, Pan, and Sabai Phyu. Sown within these exchanges in the realm of intellectual culture are the seeds for new ways of thinking about the role of culture and the arts. These arise, for instance, from harnessing art historical contexts and questions of public responsibility to argue for the appropriate path towards 'Myanmar art' and 'Myanmar style'. Volumes and articles translating art produced outside of the nation-state's borders for local audiences were produced. From struggles to legitimise the spirit of innovation in modern painting amidst the perceived stasis and conservatism in art practices under socialism, come writings that try to reconcile leftist ideology with the aestheticism and individualism of 'Western' modernism. Discussions of art from a literary or philosophical angle rather than by professional art critics suggest further study on the art-life relation continuous with broader societal concerns and cultural movements of the time. Such text productions exist in response to (and in spite of) what might appear as formidable odds for any artistic landscape attempting to modernise itself: difficult censorship hurdles, the absence of art market interest, restricted state support, and substantial obstacles to acquiring better understanding of international art movements and trends. Though they may not come in readily recognisable forms according to the conventions of art history and criticism, they challenge us to adjust our expectations of what art criticism looks like in Myanmar. Instead of expecting transparency and speech as the natural effect of browsing through the selections in this list, it is suggested that one remain sensitive to the continued silences and opacities.

Censorship—relaxed since 2012—has contributed to the past image of the speechlessness of 'Myanmar art'. Its policies and conditions, however, were never historically invariant nor consistently implemented, and the ramifications and responses have yet to be systematically studied in relation to the visual arts. Some of the most resounding and ‘relevant’ voices of Myanmar contemporary art after the Saffron Revolution of 2007, for example, could emerge only from the diaspora. Performance art in, out of, or through Myanmar since the mid-1990s provides another prime case for examining how the effects of censorship have been re-channelled. The result is movements of people and ideas that exceed the nation’s borders in actuality. The ephemerality of performance allowed for temporary inscriptions of what are frequently political messages within the safety of closed-door performances, or the walls of foreign consulates and cultural organisations. Performance art’s rapid adoption by younger artists in the 2000s attests not only to the importance of finding outlets for expression within conditions of political suppression and societal conservatism, but also to the attraction of making art on the move with more open choices of location and material. Fostered (trans)locally and in dialogue with foreign artists and international performance festivals, its coming of age after the turn of the millennium remains one of the most well-documented art ‘movements’ in Myanmar—one which has also negotiated for a more visible public presence.

Despite the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in 1988—the aftermath of which brought political incarcerations, the exile of artists, and more unreasonable censorship controls—the 1990s also saw changes in the nation-state’s degree and quality of ‘openness’ to the world. A milestone is Myanmar's entry into ASEAN. Some of the shortlist materials cue that local and foreign individuals, arts organisations, and businesses began testing the social and economic spaces opened up by Myanmar's transition from a socialist state. They promoted certain artists living in Myanmar and facilitated regional networks of art since the mid-1990s and early 2000s. Even relatively recent, significant transmedia projects, like the International Festival of Contemporary Theatre and Performance and the Wathann Film Festival, can be traced to the educational and exchange activities during this period of time. This modest shortlist can hardly convey the complexity of spaces for the expression of art—spaces that co-exist, that overlap or push apart, and that open up and close down unevenly over time. Other primary documents are needed for a better understanding of the exhibition histories under various artistic groupings (such as Gangaw Yaw and Lantern) and important artist-run galleries (such as Lokanat and Peacock in the 1970s or 80s, and Inya in the 1990s to early 2000s), alongside the annual shows organised by the Burma Art and Sculpture Council since the late 1960s and the activities staged within foreign diplomatic premises. Without formal institutions that seriously and systematically engage with the archival of Myanmar modern and contemporary art (however that may be framed), accounts will remain extremely patchy, left up to the slow process of retrieval and supplementation following the agenda and means of individual researchers and/or their funders.

Notable regional exhibitions (mainly ‘Asian’, ‘Southeast Asian’, and ‘Asia-Pacific’) display denser patterns for including ‘Myanmar art’ and artists within their frames only from the mid-1990s to early 2000s onwards. To complicate extant narratives about the 'beginnings' of contemporary art when it comes to Myanmar, I have added a few recent exhibition catalogues featuring historical works that had moved outside the frame of painting already since the 1980s. The important trajectory of Myanmar’s interconnection with the region of ‘South Asia’ has also been emerging into view, for which the geographical, material, historical, and cultural ties run long and deep.

Five years ago, the government began urging those scattered in the diaspora to return and contribute to Myanmar’s reconstruction. A number of artists who have had to operate outside of its borders have since based themselves partially in the country, or else held exhibitions there. Curators from the regional and international art worlds regularly stop over in Yangon. The political urgency that infused performance art from Myanmar is dissipating as the country liberalises, and a change in its symbolic meaning is occurring as we speak. Before, the ‘contemporary artist’ was charged with the task of transmitting artistic and intellectual know-how to younger protégés as well as to local audiences under perceived conditions of ‘lack’. Publication and programming art spaces for pedagogy were some of the means to fulfill this role. The schools of fine arts and the university set up under the Ministry of Culture were understood as traditionalist and unconducive for developing approaches to art that can communicate internationally. Now, younger artists and audiences are more likely to interact with global trends through the Internet. Overseas residency opportunities beckon with ease. Artists and artist-run spaces are consequently re-examining their mediatory functions in local societies and transnational networks.

With markets and art spaces rapidly transforming, and actors and invested institutions multiplying, what new (and old) forces and mediations are at play? What/who circulates as ‘contemporary’, with what frame and in what material? What sorts of accounts are missing? How is critical discourse being generated and circulated? How are the demands of transnational circuits for ‘Myanmar art’ changing? What are the interrelationships between these ‘forces’ and the works that artists are producing today?

We should be prepared to detect broad shifts in the nature and quality of writing, and what its framings of ‘Myanmar art’ symptomise. It is encouraging to see Myanmar intellectuals, poets, and artists start bilingual scholarly journals like the Myanmar Cultural Studies Journal (2016–), as well as more experimental platforms published online such as Be Untexed (2016–). At the time of writing, there are Myanmar-to-English translation projects for art writings in Myanmar and Singapore; research on the intersections between Myanmar authors and artists; as well as local efforts to publish documents and narratives on artists, art groupings, activities and artworks between the 1970s–2000s. Many more markers need to be tacked on, some pulled out and moved, and layers added. Current actions—innocent enough as they may seem—partake in contouring the very possibilities of knowledges about ‘Myanmar art’.

Recommended Readings

Histories of the Modern

G. Hla Maung, (To Know More About the World''s Art and Myanmar''s Art), Kou Publishing House, Yangon, 1968.
Ludu Daw Amar, (Modern Burmese Painting), Yarpyae and Kyee Pwar Yae Publishing House, Yangon, 1997.
Ma Thanegi, et al., Myanmar Painting: From Worship to Self-Imaging, Education Publishing House, Ho Chi Minh City, 2006.
Ma Thanegi, and Sonny Nyein, Myanmar’s Second-line Leaders of Modern Art: Win Pe, Paw Oo Thett, Kin Maung Yin, Daw Thin Thin Mon, Yangon, 2016.
Ranard, Andrew, Burmese Painting: A Linear and Lateral History, Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai, 2009.
Yin Ker, ‘Modern Burmese Painting According to Bagyi Aung Soe’, The Journal of Burma Studies, vol. 10, no. 6, 2005, pp. 83–157.
Yin Ker, ‘The Question of the Emergence of Modern Myanmar Art: Kin Maung (Bank) (1908–1983) and Bagyi Aung Soe (1924–1990)’, Modern Art, no. 173, 2014, pp. 63–75.

Perspectives on Contemporary Art

Aung Min, Myanmar Contemporary Art 1, TheArt.com, Yangon, 2009.
Ching, Isabel, ‘Art from Myanmar: Possibilities of Contemporaneity?’, Third Text, Special Issue: Contemporaneity and Art in Southeast Asia, vol. 25, no. 4, 2011, pp. 431–446.
Colah, Zasha, ‘Myanmar Contemporary Art’, Twentieth-Century Indian Art, ed. Partha Mitter, Parul Dave-Mukherji, Rakhee Balaram, Skira, Milan, 2014. [not yet available]
Htay Htay Myint, Myanmar Women Artists, tr. Pann Hmone Wai, U Kyaw San, Yangon, 2009.
Jaera Han, ‘Restricted Contemporaries: Art Practices in Present Myanmar’, The Art Magazine, Singapore, May 2004, pp. 72–74.
Sian E. Jay, ‘Myanmar Feature: Changing Times’ and ‘Myanmar Feature: In the Footsteps of the Masters’, Asian Art News, vol. 11, no. 4, July–August 2001, pp. 76–83.

Art Criticism and Artist-authored 'Expositories'

Aung Khin, Reminiscences of Myanmar Art, tr. Than Tun, Cape, Yangon, 1998.
Dagon Taya, The Words, The Patch of Paint, The Harp Strings, and The Velvet Curtain, 1971. [not yet available]
Khin One, Sei-daza-bagji (Modern Art / Abstract Painting), U Ba Lwin, Bagji Babu Pa Nja Pay Sapay, Yangon, 1970.
Kin Maung Yin, and Zaw Zaw Aung, (Ideal of Art), Mone Ywae Press, Yangon, 1997.
Win Tin, A-hla-shartaw-pon (In Search of Beauty), San Taw Win Publishing House, Yangon, 1967.
Zaw Gyi, ‘Love Letter on Art’, (Introduction to Literature), U Khin Maung Yee, Mandalay, 1965/1966, pp. 301–309.

Art Organisations and Infrastructure

Contemporary Asian Artist VI: Freedom in Blossom! Gangaw Village and Experimental Art in 1980s Burma, ed. Igarashi Rina, exhibition catalogue, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, 2012.
Koh, Jay, ‘Art Activism and Cross-cultural Projects in Thailand and Myanmar: The Need to Open up Structures for Engagement’, focas, no. 2, 2002, pp. 115–130.
Streitmatter-Tran, Richard, Project File: Mediating the Mekong, Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong, 2005.

Censorship and Human Rights

Carlson, Melissa, ‘Art versus Artifice: Contemplating Burmese Contemporary Art’, Orientations, vol. 46, no. 4, May 2015, pp. 100–102.
Leehey, Jennifer, ‘Message in a Bottle: A Gallery of Social/Political Cartoons from Burma’, Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, vol. 25, no. 1, 1997, pp. 151–166.
Turner, Alicia, ‘“September”: Seeing Religion and Rights in Burma’, Human Rights and the Arts: Perspectives on Global Asia, eds. Susan J. Henders and Lily Cho, Lexington Books, Lanham, 2014, pp. 39–51.

Performance Art

Asiatopia 1998–2004, 2004, English, Concrete House, Nonthaburi, 2004.
Catalogues of ‘Beyond Pressure International Performance Art Festival’, 2008–2012.
Diamond, Catherine, ‘A Delicate Balance: Negotiating Isolation and Globalization in the Burmese Performing Arts’, TDR: The Drama Review, vol. 53, no. 1 (T201), Spring 2009, pp. 93–128.
Moe Satt, ‘Short Introduction to Myanmar Performance Art’, Modern Art, no. 173, 2014, pp. 76–80.

Exhibition Catalogues

36 Ideas from Asia: Contemporary South-East Asian Art, exhibition catalogue, Singapore Art Museum, 2002.
4th Asian Art Show: Realism as an Attitude, exhibition catalogue, Fukuoka Art Museum, 1994.
Bicara-Dialogue-Zaghata: Identity/Anonymity, Singapore Festival of Arts, exhibition catalogue, Caldwell House Gallery, Singapore, 1998. [not yet available]
Htein Lin: The Storyteller, ed. Nathalie Johnston, exhibition catalogue, Goethe Institut Myanmar, Yangon, 2015.
Modern Art of Asia: New Movements and Old Traditions, ed. Japan Cultural Forum, Toto Shuppan Company, Tokyo, 1961, pp. 7–11.
Po Po: Out of Myth, Onto_Logical, exhibition catalogue, Yavuz Gallery, Singapore, 2015.
San Minn: Solo 2015, exhibition catalogue, ION Art, Singapore, 2015.
Speaking Alone: An Exhibition of Conceptual Art from Myanmar/Burma, exhibition catalogue, Thavibu Gallery, Bangkok, 2009.
Spirit: Myanmar Contemporary Art Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Beikthano Art Gallery, Yangon, 2008.
The 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, exhibition catalogue, Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, 2009.
The Mirror: Contemporary Art in Myanmar, ed. Nathalie Johnston, TS.1 Gallery, Yangon, 2014.
The Philip Morris Group of Companies: ASEAN Art Awards 1998, exhibition catalogue, Hanoi Fine Arts College, 1998.