Nyein Chu Sein (NCS) holds up a poster from his most recent art show. The words “Toy Soldiers” sit at the top, and at the bottom, in smaller print, “by invitation only.” The room around us is full of sculptures from the show. Each one is about the size of a dinner plate and features some ordinary household object—a hole punch, nails, a camera, kingpins, a rotary dial phone—surrounded by toy soldiers, the ones you find in plastic pouches at the two-dollar shop. Tiny toy soldiers, nested in loops of barbed wire, gathered under tiny plastic flags or beside tiny plastic jeeps. The hole punches, cameras and phones dwarf the soldiers—a big statement in a country still ruled by a military junta. But NCS seems much more taken with his poster advertising the event. “The tickets were free,” he tells me, “everybody knew that, but we put ‘by invitation’ on the poster so that police wouldn’t come and shut us down—like in the old days.” And then he laughs, just to make sure I understand it’s a joke.
“Throughout the city’s flourishing galleries, artists were asking what it meant to live in Myanmar, how the past continued to shape the present and what the future might hold.”
That was in August 2014, just two years after Myanmar abandoned formal censorship. Yangon’s artists had already begun the process of reinvention. NCS’s gallery Studio Square, a collective run by four contemporary artists, is an example of the experimentation, the daring, the questions being posed. Throughout the city’s flourishing galleries, artists were asking what it meant to live in Myanmar, how the past continued to shape the present and what the future might hold.
New Zero is the epicentre of the Yangon’s art scene. A gallery, a library devoted to contemporary practices (where the word contemporary is itself controversial), a school, and a gathering place for young artists of all ethnicities. It is the vision of Aye Ko, a former political prisoner and one of Myanmar’s most prominent artists. Because it is a teaching space, the art that lines these walls mixes student work with that of well-respected masters, like Aung Myint. Aye Ko’s paintings hang here too, although he is better known internationally as a performance artist. In 2016, he won the Joseph Balestier Award for Freedom of Art.
“So much of the art here is experimental—a testing of forms and styles and schools of thought, as if Yangon’s art community is striving hard to catch up on the past 50 years of art history.”
International exchange is key to New Zero’s program. It’s difficult and expensive for Myanmar artists to travel overseas, but it’s not so difficult to bring artists from America, Europe and other points in Asia here. The centre frequently plays host to resident artists (as a writer, my presence here is something of an anomaly). During my stay, I meet several Korean painters, including Park Hyungji, who is working on a project that explores how nature shapes culture. She has installed a series of canvases made from plant materials in a lush suburban garden a few suburbs away. It’s the sort of green space where rain and heat produce the perfect environment for the snails that are a part of her “painting” process. The snails are meant to eat the painting, and by doing so, leave traces. The project is set to run for about four weeks, but it is now week three and so far, the snails are refusing to cooperate. She is philosophical; it’s all part of the process. That process is what is important. The possibility of failure is part of it. So much of the art here is experimental—a testing of forms and styles and schools of thought, as if Yangon’s art community is striving hard to catch up on the past 50 years of art history.
A tension between the past and the present pervades the city. This was once the British capital and the downtown grid is still mostly made up of colonial buildings; some sprouting trees from the roofline, others refurbished as offices and boutique hotels. Nearer the river, the skyline bristles with construction cranes; a reminder that Yangon—with its expats, its East West architecture, its pagodas, churches, temples, and even a synagogue—was once the most cosmopolitan of cities, built on trade.
On Tuesday nights at Pansodan Gallery, Yangon’s latest cosmopolitans—NGO staffers and expats—converge to talk with local artists over beer and take-away fried rice. The subjects include politics, cool things in the city and art. English is the lingua franca, but it is the image, colour and form that unites the crowd.
June Yap, a curator from the Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative, visited Myanmar looking for pieces as part of a survey of contemporary art in the region. Her observation of Yangon was of a community that fostered “a discourse of representation.” Discourse, conversation, jokes, failures. All of it is part of this dialogue between the artists of Yangon and the growing city. With new quality galleries opening, such as Myanmart, Yangon’s creative conversations continue to grow more interesting, rich and confident.
Michelle Aung Thin visited Yangon from August to October in 2014 on an Asialink resident funded by Arts Victoria.