Myanmar, formerly know as Burma, is a nation in transition. Until 2015 it was completely ruled by the military and almost hermetically sealed, but the country — including its art scene — is now opening up to outsiders. There have been artist-run spaces in Myanmar over the decades, notably the Inya Gallery of Art, which opened in 1989 as the first modern art gallery in the country and grew out of the groundbreaking Gangaw Village Art Group; Studio Square, founded in 2003 by Nyein Chan Su, Min Zaw, Ba Khine, Hein Thit, and Tartie; and River Gallery, opened in 2006 by New Zealander Gill Pattison. But it’s worth examining one in particular — the nonprofit New Zero Art Space, led by artist Aye Ko — for the way it emblematizes the country’s emergence into the international contemporary art world.
Born in 1963, Ko studied some basic drawing and painting during the mid-1980s but is mostly self-taught, taking inspiration from the Abstract Expressionists of the New York School. He was, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, part of a coterie of young Burmese artists experimenting with abstraction, a style that’s historically been little understood and even less supported within the country. During his student years, Ko participated in the 8888 uprising, and in 1990 he put together Modern Art 90, a provocative group show of 15 Burmese artists that opened up new ideas about the possibilities of art. Art had long been a government tool used to reinforce Myanmar’s nationalism and the official story of its past. The artists in Modern Art 90 introduced a visual language that, according to Ko, was “abstract and symbolist. This was new. It was about going inside the mind, expressing what’s in the individual mind.”
People were openly dismissive of this new form of expression, and later that same year Ko was sentenced to three years in prison for his efforts. Forbidden to possess paints, paper, or even watch television, he spent the bulk of his time in solitary confinement. Turning inward, he engaged in long periods of meditation and self-reflection. “In 1990–93 every artist felt the same thing — no power,” Ko told Hyperallergic. “Prison was difficult to survive. I did a lot of sitting meditation. I went inside, because I had nothing; I needed to concentrate my mind.” In 1993, upon his release from jail, he resumed making art. “Modern art is a liberation,” he said. “It is not like colonialism being imposed by the West — I view it as as a liberation.”
In 1998, Seiji Shimoda, a Japanese artist and organizer of Nippon International Performance Art Festival, visited Myanmar and began collaborating with artists there, including Ko. A new form within the country, performance art enabled Ko to convey his prison experiences directly and forcefully. He staged his first piece in 1999 at the Asiatopia Performance Art Festival in Thailand, followed by another work at the remote Chaung Tha Beach in Myanmar. The government, which did not recognize the validity of performance art, responded by sentencing him to three months in jail for “inappropriate activities.” He appealed his sentence, and it was overturned. Around this time, the Modern Art 90 movement, which had started with Ko and the artists from his show, changed its moniker to the New Zero Group. That name would come to symbolize a forward-thinking approach to art in Myanmar.
In 2004 the Asian Cultural Council, an American nonprofit, awarded Ko a three-month artist’s residency in New York City, as well as funds to visit galleries in Indonesia and China. Inspired by what he saw, he vowed to create the same type of creative and conducive environment back home. Acutely aware of the lack of writers who could explain the meanings of various contemporary forms of art in the Burmese language, he founded the commercially oriented Fashion and theoretically oriented Hlaing Thit (New Wave) magazines, in an attempt to give voice to these new ways of thinking and seeing.
He also focused on international exchange, in the hopes of expanding the connections between Burmese artists and the outside world. Some of the members of New Zero had opened a physical location in Yangon in 2008, and by 2009, Ko had become the de facto head of it. That same year, the space entered into a curatorial exchange program with the ASEAN Contemporary Art Exchange, and in 2010 initiated an international artist-in-residence program with funding from the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands. Burmese artists needed “education programs and training in curating and theory, as well as performance training,” Ko said.
In 2012, New Zero hosted a first-of-its-kind event in Myanmar: the International Multimedia Art Festival. Featuring some 35 artists from abroad and 50 local ones, the festival included a symposium and an array of art, including video, sound, painting, and performances. It was a critical event for many Burmese artists, allowing them to connect face-to-face with their peers around the world.
New Zero now has art spaces in two locations: one in the city and one in the countryside. The former, down a small side street in the center of Yangon, spreads over two floors. The bottom houses the gallery, with a revolving roster of shows, while upstairs there’s a library, the New Zero archives, and a bedroom and bathroom for an artist residency.
During my visit to the downtown space, two artists were exhibiting, in side-by-side shows curated by Haymann Oo: photographer Mayco Naing and painter Kaung Su. In her work, Naing emphasizes that Burmese artists still live in fear, which she has visualized by posing twentysomethings partially submerged in water, to simultaneously reveal and mask their emotions. Su uses layers of paint to produce a crackling of the textured surface, evoking a sense of aging. He also incorporates real hair and touches of spray paint to increase the tactile tension. He’s “interested in establishing an eternal motif of cosmos, where events of enormous significance occur,” he states in the exhibition’s catalogue.
In 2015, with the help of the Japanese KDDI Foundation, New Zero expanded to the PaneNaeGone Village in Hmawbi. Ko felt that it was time to “promote the new generation, a young generation interested in social programs.” The village is roughly an hour and a half outside of Yangon, and feels very remote: It only received local SIM card internet service in 2011, and its first road and electrical connection arrived in late 2013; as of this writing, there’s still no wired internet service provider there.
The New Zero village focuses on child education and includes year-round classes in digital art, computers, English, storytelling, and theater. This is crucial because, according to many local artists, including the Studio Square collective, art education is sorely lacking in Myanmar, from early childhood on up to the college level. “The art schools in Yangon have neither included modernism in their curricula nor can introduce … the post-modernism concepts of contemporary art to the art students,” according to the members of Studio Square. “So the young artists who graduated from these schools have to learn them by themselves in the real world. There’s no art education.”
Alongside the school, the New Zero art village also houses gardens, an open-air art gallery made from locally sourced bamboo, and a wounded animal sanctuary, where I saw a proud eagle and an injured boa constrictor that responded to my presence by striking a surprisingly artful pose. The newest addition is an artist residency, housed in a structure also built from locally sourced bamboo; it’s a cross between the type of exotic hideaway you might see in Architectural Digest and a George of the Jungle man cave.
New Zero has also received grants from the British Council and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation to run workshops in the rural ethnic Mon State on Ogre Island, encouraging the indigenous traditions of local craftworkers there. (The Mon people, whose history stretches back at least 11,000 years, were the original inhabitants of Myanmar.) Although they’re small, grants like these can have a big impact on the preservation and continuation of local, traditional art forms.
For his courage and service to contemporary art in Myanmar, Ko was given the 2017 Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art by Art Stage Singapore and the US Embassy Singapore from Myanmar. The prize, named for the first American diplomat to Singapore, honors an artist or curator from Southeast Asia who’s committed to liberty and freedom of expression through art. Ko has vowed to use the money to continue running his nonprofit spaces.
Despite this success, and despite signs of increasing openness and tolerance from the Burmese government, censorship in the country persists. In the past few months, web communication in Myanmar has become challenging. When I began writing this article in April, New Zero had its own website, which, along with Aye Ko’s personal website, has since vanished; both do still seem to have active Facebook pages, demonstrating just how important smartphones have become for accessing the web. Only if Myanmar, like China, censors Facebook will New Zero lose contact with its international connections.
Hopefully that won’t happen. Because what New Zero has sowed — local grants, interaction with the international art world, and artists who endure in spite of formidable obstacles — are the ingredients for a thriving grassroots (or, in this case, bamboo roots) scene. And by teaching young children about art, the New Zero village school works to ensure that those roots will continue to grow.