A bus in Myanmar (all photos by author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

YANGON, Myanmar — The contemporary art scene in Myanmar (Burma) is undergoing a whiplash-inducing level of change that reflects the trajectory of the country. Consider these stats: In the year 2000, a SIM phone card cost roughly $2,000. The price dropped to $500 around 2006, then $250 in 2012. Today, a SIM card costs a mere $1 in a country where the minimum monthly wage is approximately $67. As recently as 2012, only 1% of the population used the internet, and only 5% had mobile phone access. During that time, internet café users had to supply their passport numbers, addresses, and phone numbers to café owners, with all usage recorded and sent to Myanmar Info-Tech every two weeks. Then, in 2013, Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor and the Qatari company Ooredoo were awarded contracts to connect most of Myanmar to a wireless phone network. The country catapulted from landlines to smartphones and Facebook, flying past computer-based internet in fewer than five years.

*   *   *

The entrance to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

The gold-plated, diamond-encrusted main pavilion at the Shwedagon Pagoda, surrounded by 64 lesser pavilions

Myanmar, an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, is know to most Westerners as the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, or “The Lady” who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for facing down her country’s military dictatorship. (After spending a total of 15 years of house arrest, she helped bring about, in 2015, the country’s first free election in over a decade.) But the story of contemporary art in Myanmar begins with its time as a British colony, from 1824 until 1948. British painting styles, including Realism and Romanticism, had a large influence on the development of art in the country. For the most part, Burmese artists did not venture abroad, with occasional exceptions, including U Ba Nyan and U Ba Zaw, who studied at London’s Royal Academy of Arts in the 1930s.

A page of traditional textile designs in U Aye Myint’s Burmese Designs Through Drawing

After throwing off the shackles of colonial rule, Myanmar had just 14 years to experiment with independence. It was then that the term “modern art” entered the country’s lexicon, thanks to U or “Bagyi” (which translates as “painter”) Aung Soe, who had studied at Rabindranath Tagore’s art ashram in India and been exposed to some of the giants of 20th-century modernism through visits to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. He went on to write From Tradition to Modern, one of only three books on modern art allowed to be published in the country until 1988.

In 1952, the Myanmar School of Fine Arts opened, followed by another state school of fine art in Mandalay. The Ministry of Culture also came into being in 1952, with a mandate to control all creative curriculum. Art training emphasized four main subjects: sculpture, painting, music, and dramatic arts. Included within these were traditional temple construction, instruments, marionettes, and classical dance, often grounded in Buddhist myths and stories. Art students tended to imitate their teachers’ work. In 1962, members of the military staged a successful coup, which affected all cultural production.

A page of traditional hair designs in U Aye Myint’s Burmese Designs Through Drawing

*   *   *

The new military government was staunchly isolationist, and artists in the country became subject to a censorship board, which consisted of a constantly changing coterie of government officials who possessed a minimal understanding of art. They determined what “acceptable” work was, based on vague and ever-shifting standards. Early modernists like Aung Khaing, who used nudity and abstraction, were censored and did not display their work in public for decades. Over the ensuing decades, some artists did manage to travel abroad, bringing back a smattering of influences from the US, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Russia. By the end of the 1980s, artists started meeting in Mandalay, Yangon (Rangoon), and other cities, where they traded information and pictures in a manner reminiscent of the Soviet samizdat.

Aung Khaing, “Women” (1971) (image courtesy the artist)

In 1988, a student-led revolt called the 8888 Uprising, or People Power Uprising, attempted to break the hold of the military junta, but was quickly quashed. Scores of artists were jailed, and art became even more heavily censored. It got so bad that specific colors or color combinations were restricted. Red was targeted because of its association with blood and revolution, as well as its symbolic connection to Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy. The pairing of black and white was also policed because it was thought to show a contrast between doom and purity. 

Maung Maung Htway, “Starving For the Light” (1999) (image courtesy the artist)

Despite the government crackdown, it was impossible to silence Myanmar’s artists entirely. They found ways around the imposed absurdities by using euphemisms or codes in their paintings to outwit censors, or by refusing to publicly exhibit their work, only showing it in their homes. In 1989, Aung Myint established the Inya Gallery of Art, the first gallery of modern art in the country, in a shed outside his house. Ten years later, Singaporean artist Jay Koh mounted Oriental Curtain, an exhibition of work by members of the Inya Artist Group at Galerie ON in Cologne, Germany. The seven Burmese artists included, among them Myint and San Minn, displayed unmistakable signs of modern abstraction and hinted at what it was like to live under repressive conditions.

Koh then joined forces with Malaysian artist Chu Yuan to create the Open Academy, a platform meant to help bring “foreign artists, art educators, curators, theatre practitioners, researchers etc. … into Myanmar to share their knowledge, resources and to develop collaborations with Burmese artists, writers and young adults.” Starting in 2003, Koh and Yuan worked on the academy in Yangon with Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts (NICA); its projects were supported by a number of international organizations, including the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands, the LEE Foundation from Singapore, and Arts Network Asia. In 2007, however, another political uprising occurred — the Saffron Revolution, so-called for the color of the robes worn by the monks who participated. The political situation grew too volatile, and the work of NICA ceased.

San Minn, “The Mask” (1999) (image courtesy the artist)

But the groundwork for artistic expression had begun, and 2008 became a breakout year, as evidenced by the founding of the independent nonprofit New Zero Art Space and the Beyond Pressure Performance Art Festival. Run by Moe Satt, Beyond Pressure featured performance artists Po Po and Aung Ko, poet Maung Day, and a host of other Burmese artists in its first year, and has gone on to include participants from Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Performance art is particularly well suited to Myanmar because it is cheap, temporary, and fraught with subtle interpretations. By 2010 the festival was gently pushing boundaries with a piece by Ma Ei, whose work focused on the inequality of women in society. Ei “cooked” dolls as food for her audience, while wearing a necklace of dolls around her neck. It was an innocuous act, but one that symbolically challenged gender roles.

*   *   *

In 2011, the military made a show of setting up a civilian government, and more art trickled out of the country. Burmese artist Chaw Ei Thein and Vietnamese artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran created “September Sweetness,” a 5.5-ton pagoda made of granulated sugar for the 2008 Singapore Biennale. Husband and wife couple Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung exhibited “White Piece #0132: Forbidden Hero (Heads)” (2012), about independence leader U Aung San, Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, in the 2013 Guggenheim exhibition No Country: Contemporary Art from South and Southeast Asia.

Censorship persisted in the country, however. In 2013, the new coalition government enacted the Telecommunications Act, which includes a contentious section titled “66D” that authorizes putting people in jail for taking a broad range of online actions that fall under the umbrella of defamatory speech. In order to avoid jail time, artists began self-censoring, particularly when dealing with issues related to ethnic minorities, politics, and religion. Passed the same year, the Yangon Municipal Act of 2013 made graffiti especially precarious, fining street artists, if caught, 100,000 kyats (~$75 US), more than many of them earn in a month.

Chaw Ei Thien, still from “Far Away in New York” (2010) (screenshot via YouTube)

Nevertheless, the contemporary art scene continued to grow, and archiving it on video became the mission of artist and curator Aung Myat Htay, through his exhaustive series DVD Magazine, published on YouTube. Htay compiled diverse clips showcasing a variety of Burmese artists. There was Mg San Oo and his early performance piece “The Deep Nest” (2004), in which he crawls through a tube of black fabric symbolizing the moments of life between birth and death. Chaw Ei Thein’s video “Far Away in New York” (2010) displays scenes of fresh snow, unimaginable in Myanmar, accompanied by the wonder and utter freakiness of riding the NYC subway. Min Thein Sung’s “Restroom” (2008–10) features a paper chair sculpted in the shape of a toilet, which the artist says “came from my imagination under pressure and stress,” placed in various anomalous settings. Thyitar explores the relationship between the brain, language, and cognition in works like “My Brain” (2012) and “Whose” (2012). Htay also presents Po Po speaking about the identity of the individual and society in terms of globalization. “In this globalization process, the strong civilization will be shining on and the weak one will be lost,” he says.

Many of the interviews and artworks in the DVD Magazine videos are shot in dark interiors, occasionally bursting out into sunlight. In “Tomorrow” (2012), a gesture as simple as the artist Nora clasping her pink doll behind her back and taking it for a walk becomes a symbolic act representing secret, forbidden thoughts. The videos are furtive and explosive, cautious and ebullient, as if the artists could not yet believe in their own tentative freedom.

The burgeoning scene was also documented in Myanmar Contemporary Art I, a critical book published by theart.com of images, essays, and interviews in Burmese about art in the country from 1960 to 1990. In 2013, artists Zon Sapal Phyu and Khin Zaw Latt and researcher Nathalie Johnston founded Myanmar Art Resource Center and Archive (MARCA), and their first project, fueled by Kickstarter, was to publish an English translation of the volume. MARCA has gone on to become a crucial resource for Burmese art, hosting a digital archive of images related to various artists and exhibitions and a lending library.

*   *   *

Mon Halsey, “Totem Poles” (2015), at Yangon Gallery (photo courtesy the artist)

In 2014, something auspicious happened: artists convinced the government to allow a one-time event featuring public art, artist talks, and performances to take place in front of the Shwedagon Pagoda at the People’s Park, an iconic cultural location. The following year, Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s political party, National League for Democracy, won the elections, and a new era was underway for Myanmar’s small but vital creative community.

It includes spaces like Yangon Gallery, which has hosted the All Myanmar Photography Festival, the 2017 symposium of the Southeast Asian Directors of Music, and a variety of exhibitions. There is the contemporary art–focused Studio Square gallery, as well as Myanmar Deitta, a nonprofit organization devoted to documentary photography, filmmaking, and multimedia production; the latter hosts workshops and training programs, photography exhibitions, and screenings of documentary films. River Gallery, opened by New Zealander Gill Pattison in 2006, has shown over 40 Burmese artists since its inception. These have all taken their places alongside the venerable Inya Gallery of Art, which continues to operate to this day.

When I visited Yangon in March, I caught the tail end of the My Yangon My Home – Yangon Art & Heritage Festival, founded in 2014 by Andrew Patrick, the British Ambassador to Myanmar, and José Abad Lorente, the director of Abadi Art Space. This year’s edition, curated by Aung Myat Htay, Phuy Mon, Nathalie Johnston, and Matt Grace, focused on how memory transforms locations, highlighting the use of downtown heritage buildings. It also included over 70 local poets and writers, and, in a move to change the city’s perception of what constitutes art, had a gallery day on which the public was invited to visit 18 downtown Yangon art spaces.

Aung Myat Htay, “Wings of Hope” (2017), at the My Yangon My Home Festival

Sculptures were installed in Thakin Mya Park for the festival, including a powerful one dedicated to the idea of individual liberty. Made by Htay and his curatorial team and titled “Wing of Hope,” it featured the arc of a sculpted metal wing placed inside a raised canoe — the former indicating motion through the air, the other motion though the water, symbolic of the aspirations of free ideas and spirits. Its label said it was “represented to the whole public who were hoping to gain freedom to live under the long era of dictatorship.”

Embassy-linked cultural centers like the Institute FrançaiseBritish Council, and Goethe Institut have been supportive of such local initiatives, especially nurturing media-centric projects. These include the regionally important Yangon Film School; the Yangon Photo Festival, which just completed its ninth year; and significant film festivals like the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film FestivalWathann Film Festival, and &PROUD, Yangon’s very first LGBTQ film festival. Opening up Myanmar to the world via smartphones has also produced a more recent warp-speed jump into new media, with a festival showcasing electronic music and experimental digital works, as well the first VR art festival in the country. This is how fast the pace of change is occurring.

Zun Ei, “Change or Unchange” (2017), at the My Yangon My Home Festival

With the emergence of the new government, however, the structure of support is changing. Embassy-linked organizations are slowly scaling back grants, while more foreign curators, writers, museum officials, and dealers are visiting, giving artists increased exposure. Unfortunately, a secondary effect is that the cost of art materials is escalating, and there is scant government funding (even if there were more, it would probably privilege traditional forms). Independent spaces face precarious financial realities like unexpected rent hikes, not having their leases renewed, and government scrutiny, making their future uncertain. Nathalie Johnston was attempting to counter this trend when she set up Myanm/art in 2016, paying two years’ rent in advance so the center would have time to develop its programming and give younger artists a place to show their work for free. In 2013, Johnston lamented, “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.” She now says this has begun to change.

It’s hard for those of us in the West to imagine that painting specific colors could land one in jail. Yet that’s the climate from which Burmese artists are emerging. Today, a small group of dedicated individuals and organizations operating on shoestring budgets (or none at all) is working hard to advance the field of contemporary art in the country. It is these small, independent spaces, and not traditional institutions, that hold the key to the future of creative culture in Myanmar.

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.