A recent exhibition of contemporary art from Myanmar, held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was entitled "You Think You Know Us?" Gold Leaf, the organizer of this exhibition, deliberately chose this title as a provocation to the generally accepted notion that art from such an isolated country and, by extension, a more traditional culture could not be very ‘contemporary’ at all. The exhibition was an eye-opener to those who held this view and, needless to say, the exhibition itself easily laid that notion to rest.
As curator, I found other compelling issues emerging: How we (curators, writers, etc.) routinely and uncritically use terms such as ‘traditional’, ‘contemporary,’ and ‘cutting edge,’ as if we all shared a common understanding, and also as if the art work fell very cleanly into these categories. And perhaps more pertinent for Myanmar, how common perception of a country’s political environment (open or repressive) often dictates our preconceptions of what that country’s artistic production will be like.
At the present time, two persistent sticking points arise in any discussion of Myanmar contemporary art: traditional subject matter and censorship. In a curious way, the issue of traditionalism is the more complex, and the issue of art production in a censorious regime is the more easily explained.
Unless it has an edge to it…
Every country has a pocket of art which looks back to simpler and, by mythic transformation, better times. The United States/New England tableaus of Norman Rockwell, and their numerous derivatives in shopping malls, attest to this situation. The popularity of these paintings exist simultaneously with the contemporary American art scene, albeit in parallel universes. Representational, nostalgic subject matter, however, do not define American art, nor any other major art center around the world. However, its fascination for a certain segment of the population continues unabated.
A provocative article in ARTnews, assessing Andrew Wyeth’s work on the heels of his first retrospective in thirty years, lends some insight into how traditional subject matter is now assessed.1 In the article, Wyeth was vilified and hotly defended in turn: Linda Ferber noted that “there is an interesting sense of dislocation in Wyeth’s works....There is no pictorial resolution.” But in comparing Wyeth to Edward Hopper, independent curator Dave Hickey remarks, “Hopper is a hundred times better” citing “his cinematic cropping, his emotional plunge.”
It would seem from the various comments—now pro, now con—that Wyeth is placed, or not, within the contemporary art canon to the extent that his work conforms to what we now define as ‘contemporary’ or ‘post-modern’. For example, Wyeth’s lack of pictorial resolution is an asset; Hopper’s cinematic cropping is even more of an asset. In either case, both comments come from post-modern criteria.
This set of critical exchanges on Wyeth bare the theoretical underpinnings of how an evaluation of a particular category of work is made—and re-evaluated constantly as art production creates new dimensions for comparison. If the back and forth remarks about Wyeth can be taken as the critical norm, it would seem that traditional subject matter, realistically figured needs to have an edge to it to gain proper admittance to the contemporary canon.
At a recent visit to the Singapore Art Museum, I viewed a work by the Malaysian painter and art theoretician, Redza Piyadasa. The painting has a text as part of the work: art works never exist in time, they have ‘entry points’. Thus, the ‘entry point’ for Wyeth, viewed now from a post-modernist position in time, allows/forces us to re-evaluate his visual language in comparison with other works, such as Hopper’s, which more closely match current thinking about how a contemporary work should read.
What does all this have to do with Myanmar contemporary art? At this time, traditional subject matter, figured realistically or romantically impressionistic, is a large part of the art production of the country; however, it is by no means all. Because of this fact, many galleries too often believe that sentimental and/or formulaic scenes are the only art style Myanmar has to offer. At least one would think so from what is presented. But the acceptability of traditional subject matter depends very much on how its visual language is constructed and, thus, read.
The ‘whacking great cheroot’
Myanmar contemporary art encompasses traditional formats in several interesting ways. The most obvious and, unfortunately, ubiquitous are the paintings to be found in the marketplace and in many galleries in Yangon, depicting the traditionally attired ethnic woman, monk with umbrella, or quaint bullock cart. This category of work appeals to the tourist who wants a souvenir of ‘Old Burma’—sentimental, typecast, and comfortable. Work of this type is similar worldwide.
Another type of traditional work has, if not an ‘edge’, a bit of cleverness about it. While the souvenir work described above would not be seriously considered for a gallery purporting to house contemporary art, a hybrid form of work has crept in the back door of some galleries. In the best of this category, traditional subject matter (for example, colorful monks or Buddha heads) are rendered in a somewhat commercial style conforming to the iconography of ‘modernism’: gold-encrusted patterning or simplified pictorial space and, in some, unusual perspective and close-up composition. These works combine a sentimental touch of ‘Old Burma’ in the subject matter with an international modernist style that goes well with decor.
It must be admitted that the technical skills of the painters in this genre are not small and that, in many instances, the works are quite dramatic. Their value in the marketplace is also not inconsiderable. However, as the art critic Robert Storr said about Wyeth, “as a whole [they] have the same set of rules. They have no insight, no daring.” And to complicate this situation even more, once a Burmese artist finds the correct marketable formula, other artists rush to copy the same subject matter and style, thereby rendering one artist’s work almost indistinguishable from the other.
One of the issues arising from this type of art—blatantly sentimental on the one hand, panderingly formulaic on the other—is that they all share an aura of exoticism. Producing exotic subject matter for western buyers is not new in Myanmar. It first began at the end of the 19th century with the British colonization of Burma. As early as the 1890’s, postcards of ‘Burmese Beauties’ or minority women smoking ‘whacking great cheroots’ as the British dubbed them were manufactured for foreign and local consumption.2 As the scholarship of Edward Said has so convincingly demonstrated, casting a people into an exotic dimension distances their reality and, consequently, their concerns.
A space of transgression
Fortunately, there is another category of work containing traditional subject matter that surprises, delights, and challenges the viewer in ways that one would not suspect. Let’s take the example of one of Myanmar’s most well-known artists to illustrate traditional subject matter executed in contemporary formats.
It must first be said that a great deal of Myanmar contemporary art leans decidedly towards the aesthetic, and Nay Myo Say is one of the artists who defines the course of this leaning. Never painting solely abstraction; always depicting traditional subject matter (devoid of cloying sentiment), his work can be described as incredibly beautiful (outstanding coloration and composition) with dramatic perspective, and all this worked into a pictorial space of mixed media. As if that were not enough to hold our interest, there are also questions of spectatorship and cultural reading within some of his visual texts.
In 2005, Nay Myo Say constructed a series of works entitled Natri Puja, a Pali phrase meaning ‘to worship the Buddha with art.’ In this series of works, the artist combines the beguiling movement of a traditional Myanmar dancer within the same pictorial space as a Buddha from the Ananda Temple in Bagan. It is interesting that a Burmese artist would choose this theme, because worshipping the Buddha with dancing is not a tradition in Southeast Asia. However, worshipping the divinities with dance is a well-established one in India. There is an intriguing bit of confluence here, since we are told by archeologists that the temples of the golden age of Bagan (11th–13th c.) were highly influenced by eastern Indian temple architecture.
The Natri Puja series combines an Ananda Buddha with a dancer, linking the two within the space by a gaze between them. Given the fact that these two figures are never seen anywhere else represented within the same space, it is a bit of a shock to see this done and, further, to have the two looking at each other.
From a western perspective, the Myanmar dancer’s positions can be read as quite sensual. This, coupled with the fact that in many of the works, the dancer is looking worshipfully at the Buddha. Again, from a western perspective, a thin sliver of meaning may separate a ‘worshipful’ gaze from a ‘sensual’ one. And the Buddha is looking at her, or in her direction, with a conventional fixed stare or, more dramatically, with eyes unconventionally slanted in her direction. Upon seeing these paintings for the first time, I immediately felt a tension in the pictorial space, and attributed this feeling to being in a space of transgression. This is clearly my reading; not the artist’s intention.3
I would say that my reading is a Piyadasa ‘entry point’ from a position of cultural difference—one imbued with familiarity with gender issues and the ‘gaze’ as a carrier of desire. This reading bespeaks of post-modern knowledge from a most definite western perspective with which the artist is entirely unconversant.
Nay Myo Say’s Natri Puja series demonstrates that paintings with traditional subject matter, as one element of a work, are most definitely no hindrance to creating complex works that do indeed extend the boundaries of art with verve, panache, and interesting interpretations. And…that this is being done in Myanmar today. It is this type of work, among others, that is not being seen enough by international audiences nor being recognized for its innovation by the art community.
Up to you…
One might say that the next challenge for the Myanmar artist, working at the boundary of tradition and contemporaneity, would be to now move from conventional subject matter into areas that speak of the current social environment. Obvious comparisons present themselves in the works coming from China, Thailand, and Indonesia—full of commentary about how people are faring in a world of rapidly increasing change.
But because of the military regime’s governance of Myanmar, censorship is a stark reality. For those artists who desire public exhibition within the country, the gauntlet of bureaucratic approval-seeking is prohibitive, only to have one’s innocuous nude rejected at the end of the process. As a result, this path is not taken. Instead, what can be euphemistically termed ‘social commentary’ works are held in private galleries to an invitation-only audience. Not surprisingly, the most direct political expression is in performance work in these small, safe spaces. A performance piece is an intangible; there’s no evidence once it’s completed. A painting holds more threat; it can be confiscated and the artist prosecuted.
That having been said, Myanmar artists are courageously going as far as they feel it’s safe in expressing themselves. The various ways are ingenious and fascinating to see: from works with veiled multiple meanings, to satiric and humorous works with a diffuse aim, to works with a totally private and hidden meaning.
One of Myanmar’s most creative artists, Phyu Mon, is an example of one who creates using multiple meanings. A performance artist also working in digital photography, in her most recent series of works entitled Hope, the other Born to Run, she expresses several levels of meaning using a predominantly Surrealist approach. The images in these series can be read as personal statements on restriction vs. freedom: as a woman in a traditional society, as political statements, or yet again as a concept of Buddhist philosophy.
Another approach is satire and outright humour, refreshingly evident in a number of works whose elliptical references are relatively safe, because non-specific to Myanmar. If one were to ask regarding a work, “what does it mean?” the artist would likely respond by smiling coyly and saying, “up to you.”
Then there is the work that has a very Myanmar-specific political commentary, but so well hidden that the unsuspecting viewer would never guess the meaning. I am referring to a painting the message of which revolves around events during the people’s 1988 uprising in Myanmar. In many demonstrations, monks took the lead, turning their traditional black lacquer begging bowls upside down refusing to accept rice. The style of the painting in question is the very height of elegance, semi-abstract in design, with no apparent message at all. And yet, this political theme is the very motivation for the work.
To protect the identity of the artist, a photo cannot be reproduced here. In this way, the arm of censorship reaches not only the artist but also the writer as well and, by extension, the reader. Censorship is one way of isolating Myanmar artists from their colleagues worldwide, preventing them from the unhindered exchange of new ideas.
Unfortunately, another form of restriction has befallen the Myanmar art community. It is by now old news that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bi-annual art show has prohibited Myanmar from participating in competition for awards. This important regional event is sponsored by the American company, Philip Morris. Because no definitive public information has been forthcoming from Philip Morris as to exactly why Myanmar artists were barred from competition, it is widely assumed by artists within Myanmar that it was done in support of the United States government’s additional sanctions on the country in 2003.
Philip Morris dropped Myanmar after the 2002 competition, in which a Myanmar artist, U Aung Myint, was selected for one of the Jurors’ Choice Awards. From today’s perspective, it is more than ironic to restate the words of the Regional Director of the Philip Morris Multinational Corporation: “This year’s occasion is indeed remarkable, because the Myanmar artists have achieved success in the very first competition they have been eligible to enter. I hope they will win prizes in the years to come too.4
As a result, the only major region-wide art competition available to the Myanmar artist is the prestigious Sovereign Asian Art Prize, held annually with a first prize of US$25,000. In the Sovereign’s first competition in 2004, five Myanmar artists were selected for the 30 finalist group. With the exception of two of these, the remainder reflected art work (sentimental/exotic scenes of everyday life) that is the concern of this article to challenge as representative of the best of Myanmar contemporary art. Since 2004, no Myanmar artist has reached finalist status.
Is it possible?
There is no doubt that Myanmar artists have the visual language skills and an abundance of creativity to now move into more innovative expression using a diverse range of media. To use China as a counterpoint, when was the last time a contemporary Chinese artist presented a sentimental tableau from rural Yunnan as a serious piece of art at a major gallery or exhibition?
Is it possible that as more doors begin to open for Myanmar artists—as they now are—that they can begin, in turn, to open more challenge for themselves? In a reversal of Robert Storr’s remark about Wyeth, we would wish for more Myanmar artists to “have insight, have daring,” as some of the more outstanding ones are now doing.
And, it is equally important for exhibition venues, art periodicals, and critics to participate in and support this daring, by highlighting the most innovative and vibrant work that is at the forefront of the Myanmar art scene today.
Jacquelyn Suter is Founder of Gold Leaf.
1. Deidre Stein Greben, “Wyeth’s World,” ARTnews, October 2005. Online at http://www.artnews.com/2005/10/01/wyeths-world/
2. Noel F. Singer, Old Rangoon, Kiscadale Publications, Scotland, 1995.
3. In conversation with the artist in Yangon, October 2005.
4. Quoted in The Myanmar Times, May 27-June 2, 2002. Online at www.myanmar.gov.mm/myanmartimes/no117/myanmartimes6-117/New/naffairs.htm
- Fri, 1 Dec 2006