Born in ’83, Came Alive in ’97

Nathalie in Bagan                                         1997

Gotta start somewhere. While this blog is really to document and critique my own research, opinions, observations and predictions on the contemporary arts of Myanmar I thought I would first post on why it is that I am here, addressing Myanmar, Art, Evolution and Revolution in all three. In 1997 my parents took us kids on a tour of Asia to visit various old friends, some of whom were in high diplomatic positions.  Mom was a diplomat once and Dad was a banker. They met in Taiwan and discovered they had a mutual respect and curiosity when it came to Chinese language and culture. This trip was meant to show the kids where Mom and Dad met and fell in love, where they stayed, and how much their old stomping grounds changed since they got married in Taipei in 1979. We grew up in a house hearing Chinese spoken on the phone, sat on Chinese furniture, turned on lamps made out of Chinese vases and were regularly updated on the changes occurring all over Asia. Heading to Hong Kong for the handover, Taipei for a walk down memory lane and Beijing and Shanghai to visit friends did not seem to me a big change in scenery. What I was not prepared for was Burma…

That is what we were instructed to call it. Mom worked for Radio Free Asia in Washington D.C. – supporting the sentiments of the oppressed was the name of the game.  I could not tell you a play-by-play of exactly what we did that trip (though I was keeping a journal – one day I’ll post what I wrote) but I can tell you that that trip changed my life forever. My senses remember flowers, watermelon juice, child soldiers carrying black rifles, crumbling temples, fish paste in the market, kids kicking a ball made of rattan, creamy paste on women’s cheeks, constant talk of politics amongst the adults, the sun setting over the Ayeyarwaddy River, a man with the house made entirely of teak, empty hotels, coloful longyis, donkey carts and not being able to wear shorts and a tank top in the stifling heat.
What happened after that? I did a project on Burma on my Apple 2GS computer in school, I wrote a poem about Aung San Suu Kyi that was translated and read on air at RFA and for years after that, I promised myself I would return. After living with a host family in Beijing in 2001, teaching English and studying Chinese in 2007, brooding outside Seoul in 2009 and moving to Singapore that summer to pursue a Masters degree in Contemporary Art, I finally got my chance…
My instructor told us we would not only cover pre- and post-WWII art as the “history of contemporary art in Europe” but would also cover contemporary art in Asia, specifically Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Philippines, Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Laos. There was a noticeable absence of Mongolia, East Timor and Brunei but an especially large country bordering many of these countries was also not mentioned. Immediately I asked, “What about Burma?” and my instructor said “There is no contemporary art in Burma, just painting.” Was that an invitation to return or what? Challenge accepted.

 

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