Why Myanmar Painting Matters
In writing this piece, I am also trying to convince myself of why it matters. For a few years now, I have been caught up in the exciting and surprisingly versatile performance art scene in Yangon and around Myanmar. I like it because it is honest, it cannot be sold (yet), and the artist cannot hide his or her emotions behind a breathtaking scene of a pagoda at sunset. However, I am quickly realizing that not knowing painting in Myanmar, the country’s art in general can never be fully grasped. Not to mention the fact that, not until you see a real life sunset over a pagoda (and how precisely the artists in Myanmar can capture that beauty in paint) can the skills of the artists be appreciated.
There is nothing inherently wrong with painting. As a former art student in a painting class, I can say it is damn hard and takes years to master. But in the art world, it gets a less than stellar reputation for being dated or not “contemporary” – or a poor imitation of the impressionists and abstract expressionists who became famous in the West. Well, guess what? This is not the West. This is Asia. Art history was not recorded or methodically approached the same way it was in the West – so saying that an artist is just creating knock-offs of Rembrandt 150 years ago is not really fair, is it? Because Rembrandt just painted impressions of what was around him. Are these painters not doing the exact same thing?
Most of the art students in Myanmar studied painting, but unlike the West, they have maintained a very strong relationship between Master and Student. Every single painter lists “Studied under” at the top of their curriculum vitae. The most popular names/teachers seem to be U Lun Gywe, U Thein Han, U Min Soe, Bagyi Aung Soe, Maung Myint Aung, U Thit Lwin Soe, U Tin Aye, U Kyaw Lin, and many many more. Many of them were or are professors who work at the State School of Fine Art and the University of Arts in Culture in Yangon and in Mandalay. Perhaps the newest “Master” is New Zero – a training school and stomping ground of several senior artists as well as young, enthusiastic painters.
It takes years, even decades to find a style that suits and many of the painters in Myanmar have that basic, strong background, creating a style all their own. A few critical points I want to make – those which I feel, were they altered slightly, would work well with Myanmar painters and their approach to art:
– Professors must discontinue using the schools as their own personal studio. I was never introduced to any of my professors work until the very end of our courses (this was before the magnificent power of the internet allowed all things to be searchable) and most of the time, I was disappointed. It’s not about leading by example in art. It’s about challenging the student to find their own strengths through MAKING.
– Speaking of the internet, the schools need computers. We can no longer pretend that art and technology do not go hand in hand, even if your chosen medium is paint, part of your library should be the internet
– Painting class isn’t just about portrait and perspective. It’s about knowing an artist inside out, sharing emotions however small or large, and challenging the status quo, which brings me to my next point…
– CRITS! Nina Rodin gave a great presentation in Yangon at KZL Gallery in November about the importance of the critique in communicating meaning and taking your peers’ opinions seriously. In one instance, an artist shared a painting and the responses could be likened to a sensitive child not wanting to hurt another child’s feelings – “I like the colors” “the texture is interesting” “the abstraction is good.”
– Another interesting response – the artists said they had no favorite abstract artists in Myanmar. There were no “good” ones. But after a visit to the U of Arts and Culture, I’m not sure Abstract/Pop/Impressionist has been accurately described as a style or movement. It is not particularly important that it is, but the language used to describe categories of art in school must be improved upon if painters are going to describe themselves or their peers.
Does this mean that painters need to stop painting Buddhist themes, temples, landscapes or portraits? No, definitely not. One day these aspects of Myanmar life will be memories held in canvas rather than a daily reality. But it would be fascinating to see what students work with under new approaches to education, critique, basic drawing, and the invention of Burmese words for all of these aspects of art.
Here is a list of my favorite painters from Myanmar. In my opinion, their strength lies not only in a consistent style approach – as in, you can tell that they practice with sketch, they repeat strokes, they move their hands in certain ways, and approach personal experience through paint and canvas – but also in their willingness to move away from the crowd of temple art and safe subject matter.
Soe Naing – His small creatures and quick, troubled brush strokes make him one of the most interesting painters alive today. Soe Naing has used this approach to painting for almost 20 years. Aung Min wrote that he has suffered some kind of painful skin disease most of his life, hence his “little monsters.” The beauty of the colors mashed with the malice of the creatures make Basquiat look like an amateur.
Sandhar Khine – Nudes. Beautiful, plump, voluptuous naked women, mostly holding a camera – prying eyes shedding light on the perspective of those who believe that tall and thin is what really makes a woman feminine and beautiful. The nude is not unique – it’s the woman painting the nude. Her country takes pride in the light-skinned, thin yet curvaceous ladies pinned in a hta main and ain gyi (traditional skirt and shirt set). The artist does not posses these qualities and she tells us so through her figures.
Aung Myint – Legendary painter who inspired the likes of Aye Ko of New Zero and Htein Lin, performance artist and political activist. It’s not so much his subject matter as his open-mindedness and all he represents – from the Mother and Child series to the intense red and black of his giant, acrylic canvases. Censorship inspired his palette and he is open to interpretation and change. That’s not easy to find in a painter, especially in a transitioning Myanmar.
Lwin Oo Maung – Just getting started, he’s young and enthusiastic. A hanger-on in the arts scene, he disappears just as quickly as he appears, with the occasional performance or painting in one or another event around Myanmar. His self-portraits are solid and inviting. Perhaps his most popular is the piece he created for 7000 Padauk. He imagined his face at his own funeral, complete with a toothy smile and vintage suit. Visitors wanted to buy it. He refused. One drunken night his friends defaced it with a mustache. Now it’s worthless… or is it?
Nyein Chan Su – Founder of Studio Square and intense performance artist, NCS’s paintings are abstracts of your typical Myanmar landscape. Thick paint applied with a palette knife reveal the world in color blocks. Consistency is the name of the game in his style, and while some carry on too long, a select few take color and abstract to a whole new level in Myanmar painting. Where everyone is focused on the figure or landscape, NCS creates the spaces between.
Nu Nu – Seriously talented woman who’s subtle scenery will take your breath away. One of the only artists using more pastel than primary colors, she brings your eye to the green muck in the water or the brown and tan of the faded wooden bridge. Less is more and it works. See the picture above of the boat in the murky green water.
Win Pe – He’s old school and some might say that his paintings are too. But that doesn’t stop his style from being completely original in comparison to other painters in Myanmar. Not only did he serve as many artists’ teacher and inspiration, but he also has been collected and studied in schools. Not quite realistic, his style is one of naive and patterned – almost tribal, which is probably why he’s hailed as a hero among painters. He paints the realities of life in the countryside – in which 70% of people still live in Myanmar. Traditions, history, and transition are all contained in his charming and eloquent painting style.
There are so many more – and I haven’t even begun to dig deep into the world of Myanmar painting. This, as so many of my other posts, are observations, opinions, and names – allowing the reader to his or her own research with a bit help.