Places & Spaces: Museums in Myanmar

In the past 6 months, Tun Win Aung, Wah Nu, Phyoe Kyi, Zar Min Htike, Min Thein Sung, May Phue Thet, Nyan Lin Htet, Nge Lay and Zaganar and many other artists and creative professionals were part of The Flying Circus Project – a major initiative (since 2006) exploring varied creative expression in Asia. There were many artists, aspects, spaces and visual and artistic mediums used during the projects’ duration, but perhaps most importantly was the invention of physical space, namely on the part of Tun Win Aung, Wah Nu, and Phyoe Kyi, allowing other artists to ‘display’ their work in ways never before seen in Myanmar.

The Taunggyi Open Air Museum of New Media Art located at Yoma art Space in Taunggyi, Shan State; the Thingangyun Museum of Contemporary Art located in Yangon on a plot of land; and Mingon Museum of Contemporary Art set up in Mingon near Mandalay.  These are more than temporary exhibition spaces. They are the first “museums” of Myanmar and are a direct reflection of artist curation and self-determination regarding the future of art spaces throughout the country and greater Southeast Asia.

They are not the first in Southeast Asia to create these spaces. Indeed, artists especially in Southeast Asia tend to create a space rather than occupy one that is already established. It is a result of having little to no support from national or local institutions. Nor are they the first artists to create their own spaces for creative use. It is the fact that they title them “museums” that make them unique.

It is a constant cause for concern: there are no free art spaces in Myanmar. There are no museums, outdoor sculpture gardens, contemporary art galleries, resource centers, libraries or online journals supporting the arts and artists working today. While this is not the entire truth, it is clear that whatever already exists is just simply not enough to satisfy the hundreds of creative folks wanting to share their ideas through visual art.

Forget the National Museum. A government-dictated space devoted to traditional arts cannot accommodate Modern art sufficiently; let alone contemporary art and new media. New Zero Art Space is a fantastic accomplishment of Aye Ko and several other artists. There are residencies, workshops and funding for those who are bold enough to ask.  Yet a space requiring membership, with a library where books cannot be borrowed and a statute of limitations on who and what subject matter might be covered (this is not overtly stated, rather implied) does not a free art space make. Pansodan Gallery is just that: a gallery. A place which invites to you purchase, not create or find support for your work. River Gallery, New Treasure, Golden Valley, KZL, Inya, Nawaday, Nawaday Backyard, Beik Thano , Lokonat – they all offer space for certain kinds of art which sells. That does not seem to satisfy the average contemporary artist working in Myanmar today.

Artists have been holding their own for decades in Myanmar – creating events in various hotels and galleries around Yangon, self-publishing catalogs and poetry, making their own documentaries and all the while spending their own money to accomplish what they can with the space they have.  These artists have had to go beyond Yangon to make sure their community gets the spaces they need. The Mandalay Contemporary Art Center is a fantastic example of a place where artists can propose, display and perform. Suu Myint Thein encourages the larger artistic community by holding art classes as well as workshops. Yoma Art Space in Taunggyi is becoming more active and more importantly, inviting contemporary art created outside Yangon and in Shan State. The ultimate goal, as Aung Soe Min of Pansodan Gallery states, is to have spaces in every city where people at all corners of Myanmar’s map have access.

How can one achieve such a lofty goal? Start small. Phyoe Kyi designed an entire museum on the computer, curated exhibits in said museum, then projected that museum onto the ancient temples of Mingun. Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu constructed a large tent on an empty plot of land in Yangon. Inside Zar Min Htike displayed his demons. Having spent time in prison, he remembers the crazed bodies trying to climb walls, play cards, and trying to grow wings to escape the torture of confined space.

Do spaces always need to define the art contained within them or can we build the space around the art and its message? This is only the beginning. Yangon and cities like Taunggyi, Mandalay, Sittwe, Bagan, Malawmyine and even Naypyitaw will transform in the next 20 years to the point of being unrecognizable to those of us who spent time here years ago. Why shouldn’t the artists define how their art is displayed and whether or not it should distract from the landscape or be a part of it? Best of luck.

 

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