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Citizen of the World: Myanmar Artist Aung Myint Takes on the Globe
By Nathalie Johnston
Aung Myint looked comfortable among the large crowd, which gathered to view his recent works at Yavuz Gallery in Singapore. The show, titled Citizen of the World shows a ripening of Aung Myint’s works – opinionated and self-realized. A veteran of the Myanmar art world for over thirty years, his clout is far-reaching amongst his friends and fellow artists in Yangon but he is little known amongst the international contemporary art world. His recent appearances in Singapore, first at the Osage Gallery’s “pLAY” exhibition in May 2010 and now at Yavuz Gallery, may be just the exposure a seasoned Myanmar artist like himself requires to make a lasting impression.
The contemporary arts in Myanmar are thriving creatively, thanks to supporters like Aung Myint. Not only is he an artist, but a mentor and friend to many of the other artists working in Yangon today. In addition, he owns the Inya Gallery of Art – a converted structure attached to his home which acts as studio, exhibit space and lounge; all in all a place in which one could relax and talk for hours about art and life. Several international artists have been hosted there as well as numerous performance events, including Japanese artist Seiji Shimoda, who participated in the Myanmar – Japan Performance Art Event in 2005. This might be the defining factor of Aung Myint’s work: from an abstract modernist painting to self-portrait to performance, it manifests itself in whatever medium Aung Myint deems appropriate.
Hence the anticipation when the audience was informed of Aung Myint’s performance at the show opening. He asked fellow Myanmar artist Nge Lay to assist him with his work. He began by securing a colorful image of Buddha on the wall. He knelt in prayerful silence with his Buddhist prayer beads, honoring the image of he who almost 90% of people in Myanmar consider their teacher. After kneeling, he walked as though crippled, only to end the performance lying on his back, his limp fingers cradling the beads, covered in a white sheet, which Nge Lay pulled over him. Only his feet and hand were left exposed. It was a simple testament to his faith in the teachings of Buddha and the peaceful acceptance of death.
The performance seemed complimentary to the works on display around Yavuz Gallery. It offered repose while certain paintings and installations portray distress. Aung Myint conveys the duality of an uncertain world. Many might relate the intensity of color and subject matter to the political circumstances of Myanmar over the past few decades. This might be the wrong way to approach most of Myanmar contemporary art. The exhibition Citizen of the World is not about political strife, human rights violations, or the upcoming elections in Yangon. The artists in Myanmar address more than politics. Even the politically and economically marginalized feel a part of the greater world. By confronting turmoil on a global scale, Aung Myint speaks to global circumstances.
Aung Myint’s work comes from a pure place, where he taught himself through books and magazine clippings on the international art movements of the 70s and 80s. He is from the modern school in Myanmar art, which most consider derivative. I tend to shy away from this word; did we not all derive from something? After rendering that word insufficient to describe the art of Myanmar, we can work with a completely new perspective. We begin with the influence of Buddhism and the culture of choice it supports, the strong tradition of arts and education in Myanmar dating back hundreds of years, and the unique and often troubling circumstances under which the artists have been working for nearly 60 years. The people of Myanmar have had a voice of their own for far longer than international audiences tend to give them credit for and Aung Myint is bridging that lack of understanding with the Citizen of the World exhibit.
Citizen of the World not only brings to light some interesting comparisons of Myanmar as one tiny part of the larger globe, but also questions the viewers’ knowledge of Myanmar. Nearly every review, book, article or exhibition I have ever seen or read focuses on the political as if it were the only thing to ever come out of this richly diverse culture. It is something but it does not have to be everything. Take Black Stupa and White Stupa Doesn’t Need Gold; these paintings in acrylic really speak to the Myanmar landscape, dotted with stupas all over the country. A stupa is built to hold Buddhist relics in a place where Buddha stayed or traveled through. The grandest are covered in gold and decorated with gems native to the country. Aung Myint honors the shape and importance of the stupa without the dressings.
Here is what I took away from the work: the overwhelming changes whipping through lives all over the world and Aung Myint’s personal feelings toward them. In a conversation I had with the artist in Yangon in August 2010, he shook his head as he spoke of the “way the girls are dressing these days.” He reminded me of an endearing father figure, harkening to days back when. Aung Myint has seen so many ups and downs in his life and art is his commentary, one that reaches the masses. In World Series: Five Continents Tattered Aung Myint tore tiny holes in his continental renditions, then meticulously stitched them up again as if the piece symbolized the healing process between the countries and their differences. The painting in the main hall of the gallery Where Is? shouts at the audience from a bright red wall. The black and white abstraction is attractive, but I especially enjoyed the message behind the medium – the compartmentalization of “where.” My first thought was how many people in this world are not aware of others. In this sense Myanmar works off of the same assumptions as any other country, making for an interesting argument against the assumed isolationist mindset of the Myanmar people.
I enjoyed the small reminders that I was looking at a Burmese artist – the beautiful Burmese script in the painting I am a Fool, the tiny letters on the sandals in the Self-Portrait installation, or the ostentatious use of red and black in most of the works. This is quite typical of Burmese painters. As Iola Lenzi states in her curatorial essay, red and black were long forbidden for display by the government censorship board, which peruse every single exhibition in Myanmar before it is made public. They choose what they like and reject what they do not. This includes: too much red or black, anything with the word Myanmar or Burma in it, and anything that could possibly be construed as political. It sounds dramatic but it is actually an incredibly polite process. The artists or gallery owner host the board, who arrive dressed in beautiful, traditional dress. They have tea, give their approval (or not) and quietly exit. If they refuse a work, they might take it but will return it to the artist after the exhibition. In Singapore, Aung Myint can paint (almost) anything he likes and use whatever colors he deems satisfactory. Red and black it is.
Particularly intriguing is Self-Portrait, a photographic series turned installation that focuses on Aung Myint the man, in his everyday dress – including button down shirt, longyi (a kind of Burmese sarong) and sandals with a hand-woven bag over his shoulder. Digital works are not something one normally sees coming from Aung Myint but the result was a demonstration of his openness to new media as an equally rewarding creative medium. Not to mention a testimony to his presence, which is calming and imposing at the same time, much like the photographs.
It is very difficult to show a Myanmar artist out of context and I applaud Yavuz for attempting to do so respectfully and with great enthusiasm. I also admire Iola Lenzi’s careful fielding of highly politicized interpretations of Aung Myint’s work, as well as the placement of works so each was appropriately enhanced by the other. Aung Myint loves art, whether he is painting or performing, speaking of or supporting. Whether or not the works in Citizen of the World will change the world is left up to history but at least they gave us some insight into an artist’s mind and his impression of the fast-growing impact of global strain.
Nathalie Johnston recently completed her Master’s thesis on Myanmar Contemporary Performance Art. Originally from the Virginia in the USA, she now lives in Singapore and plans to pursue Myanmar Contemporary art st