Research Log | Nothing If Not Liberated

When my sister learned I was planning a trip to Yangon, Myanmar, around the time of Chinese New Year, she did not embrace the idea. Understandable. As a matter of fact, the televised images of the crackdown on monk-led pro-democracy rallies and a helpless dying Japanese journalist in the Yangon streets in October 2007 are still vivid even a few months afterwards. Security fears and a worldwide boycott of travel have led to an acute decline in overseas tourists, as well as in business (as I was told by the locals).

The occasion that brought me and another handful of cultural workers to Yangon in early February 2008 was the Festival of Contemporary Theatre and Performance Art. Entitled "iUi: Process of Initiating, Updating and Integrating," it contained workshops, seminars, and performances. Initially scheduled to take place in November 2007, it had to be deferred as the political situation unfolded.

According to the main organiser, Nyan Lin Htet of the Theatre of the Disturbed, over ten individuals subsequently cancelled their participation due to the postponement of the event. Now Paris-based, 25-year-old Nyan, who trained in architecture and currently involves himself both in performance art and theatre, organised the event in his country from afar. After a ten-month absence, Nyan flew back from Europe for the festival in late January 2008.

Only theatre and puppet workshops for local young people were conducted. Perhaps also due to the limited budget, these workshops were run by experts who live and work in the region—to be specific, from Thailand. The festival concluded with a handful of theatre works (two of them were fruits of the workshops) and works by a dozen local performance artists.

As Stephane Dovert, Cultural Counsellor of Embassy of France in Myanmar and head of Alliance Française since 2005, noted, such an event is a noticeably rare activity in Yangon. I was repeatedly told that it was only possible to realise the project inside the premises—as a diplomatic zone—of the Alliance Française in Yangon.

Performance as an art form that has caught the imagination of Burmese artists is a comparatively recent phenomenon—since the late 1990s. A seminar by art critic Aung Min and my acquaintance with the participating artists at the festival formed the basis of a crash course on the development of performance art in Myanmar.

U Aung Myint and Po Po are pioneers in the field. Self-taught painter U Aung Myint (b. 1946) started exhibiting in the 1960s and is a leading figure in Yangon's contemporary art scene. He co-founded The Inya Gallery of Art to showcase works of fellow artists. The work Beginning n End in 1995 marked Aung Myint's first performance, whereas botanist turned poet and artist Po Po staged a thirty-minute seminal performance in 1997.

Participation in performance festivals in the region such as NIPAF (Japan) and Asiatopia (Thailand) contributes immensely to the elevation of the practice. Apart from individuals joining these festivals overseas, The NIPAF—Myanmar in 2001 and Performance Festival 2005, organised by the Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts (NICA) in Myanmar, were milestone events in promoting the art form inside the country.

Though with a short history, this art form seems to serve the artists well. Interestingly, most of them are self-taught artists, and they are also involved in other art practices, be it painting, sculpture, ceramics, or poetry. Poet Nyein Way started to combine poetry with performance around 2004. He claimed he was the first person in Myanmar to improvise poetry with action and named it "physical poetry performance."

As an outsider, one could easily and quickly discern that the suppression taking place in Myanmar was impacting the artists, via prudent conversations with individuals, and through explicit performance works presented in the festival. Consider these acts: cutting through words scripted on a piece of cloth by a blade (Aye Ko); kissing and entangled with a chair (San Oo); a performance where the artist kept shouting "fuck the world" (Nyein Chan Su, more often known as NCS); smashing a chair and table (Ko Z); and struggling in front of a blowing fan (Aung Pyae Sone). As art critic Aung Min points out, anger is commonplace in the works of Burmese artists.

Another purpose of my trip was to visit the art community in Yangon. The participants of the festival naturally became the entry points for this aim.
Unlike the temperament of his work presented at the festival, Fuck the World, NCS has a genteel personality. Initiated together with his cousin Ba Khaing and fellow classmates Min Zaw and Hein Thit, who studied at the State School of Fine Arts (Yangon) in the 1990s, the Studio Square occupies two shopfronts in a moderate shopping centre, serving both studio and gallery purposes. NCS and his fellow classmates, all born in the early 1970s, are the few artists I met with formal art educations. NCS, the most dynamic and prolific in this small group, is regarded as someone who can bridge the older generation and new generation.

The New Zero Art Group brought me to their new space of 50 square metres with much enthusiasm. Originally named Modern Art 90 and founded in 1990, it was renamed New Zero Art Group in 2000. Led by artist Aye Ko, the group has currently expanded to include twenty-eight artist members. Jailed for a few years after the 1988 pro-democracy movement, Aye Ko now leads a dual life as the proprietor of a wholesale shoe shop and as an artist.

With the support of a foreign grant, the art group and publishing house, spearheaded by project manager Mrat L. Htwann (also a performance artist), plans a series of three titles to cover modern and contemporary art in Myanmar since the 1960s. Art critic and writer Aung Min, a practicing doctor by profession and author of two novels, contributed to project, interviewing artists between shifts at his own clinic. Mrat and Aung Min were thrilled and could not wait to tell me when their first book survived inspection/censorship by government authorities.

Thanks to the assistance of Aung Min, I managed to acquire a set of Pan magazine (a total of thirteen issues) published by the Sapsarpar Media Group. Pan—meaning "ten kinds of art" in Burmese—was first printed by another publisher, and was then reincarnated with the inclusion of considerable contemporary content under the auspicious support of the Sapsarpar Media Group. However, Pan has not been printed since September 2007.

During the trip, I offered to send books in need to my new acquaintances in Yangon when I got home. Trivial as it may sound, the commitment of sending books indeed helps to trespass the boundaries between a troubled land and a comfort zone.



Phoebe WONG, 黃小燕

Tue, 1 Apr 2008

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