Custodians of Expression - Art within a Political Flux

HOME office, Yangon, Zarganar's office.

A grid of roads and colonial edifices in disrepair populated by an array of second hand Japanese cars and a multi-cultural make-up is how one can describe Yangon. It is visibly a city with a colonial past: remnants of the British empire are etched into the city’s architecture, and the sense of urbanism in its cuisine, streets, and racial makeup are distinct reminders of the past. Most tourist guidebooks refer to the ancient capital of Bagan and its frescoes within the vaults of the numerous temples and pagodas while discussing art.  At the entrance of the Bogyoke Aung San Market multiple shops sell piled up canvases in recently dried acrylic paint. 

But across the street, behind the handsome Chulai Tamil Mosque, is a shop that sells slippers. Its proprietor is a man who made it big as a businessman through a wholesale in footwear. Aye Ko, is an artist and activist who spent some years in jail. His dissent against, in the form of his performances was seen anthemia to a regime in paranoia.  He, along with 32 other artists established the New Zero Art Group, a collective that sought to create a new didactic in art that rejected the academic realism taught at the fine art department in the university, vestiges of colonial pedagogy. Their space in downtown Yangon boasts of a vast library of art books and equipment to record performances and screen videos. Inhabited by many young art students, it is a space of transit and dialogue, mirroring the change Burma faces politically.

Not far away on Pansodan street, within the Sofaer Building, of Palladian architecture built by a Baghdadi Jewish trader is the Lokanat Gallery. Founded in 1971 by three artists upon allotment of space there by the government. The gallery accommodates a language institute and a strict constitution that breaches into the private lives of the member artists. There are restrictions on criticising the government censor body - the Myanmar Arts Council, member artists have a duty to teach and inculcate students, a significant percentage from the sales of their works go towards sponsoring other shows by artists. Dedicated to the Buddhist God of art - Lokanat, the motto of the gallery is beauty, truth and love. The gallery for that last four decades has been home to historical exhibitions and divides its space into two halls, that exhibit academic and contemporary art respectively. The state plays a role within this space through censorship and support, but it is an arena where the critical social-political discourse often seen in the works of the artists and the government find common ground. 

As Myanmar, more popularly know (or more politically correct) as Burma, begins to transit into an era of openness it shakes away a repressive dictatorship, an economy that was shackled by sanctions and a media censored into humorous formality.  The Strand Hotel is a restored legendary residence from the British Raj and at one end of its lobby is a gallery that has a varied array of canvases each to be sold for dollars and they could also be bought by a credit card - a monetary miracle of sorts in Burma.  The ‘Painting Kiosks’ at the downtown Scotts Market (Bogyoke Aung San Market) that cover every inch of their walls with scenes of monks or the idyllic Irrawaddy River and the gallery in the hotel lobby tend to encourage and deal with similar subjects intended at an art boom that is nascent and fueled by the Australian Mining Contractors at the Strand and the European backpackers at Scott Market.

 Htein Lin is one of those who often depicts monks, but they are not set in idyllic settings. In fact his paintings would have been described as crude by the state-run art schools. For this self-taught political activist who braved years in jail and thereafter in exile in England the monks represent a catalyst - for  their protests against inflation turned into a national movement that is bearing fruit now. He does not only paint them but also dons their attire for his charged performances that have an inheritance from traditional Buddhist wit and his years as a rebel in the forests of Northeast India and near the Chinese border.  

Htein Lin was introduced to art practice in the forests of Manipur by a known painter from Mandalay, Sitt Nyein Aye, having fled Burma after the students' protests of 1988  against the General Ne Win regime. Sitt Nyein Aye taught the young Burmese revolutionaries the importance of non-violence and passive resistance that could be achieved through art, for he had used signboard painting, graphic design, publishing magazines amongst other ways to resist the regime during his time in Mandalay. He was not alone, voicing their dissent through art forms that included performance and poetry became a mainstay for a concerned civil society in Burma, under a regime that stifled its printed media through censorship and control.  

  Performance by Aung Myint (1946- ) photographed by artist Thu Rein

Performance by Aung Myint (1946- ) photographed by artist Thu Rein

None of the popular art practitioners in contemporary Burma belong to the academic school of western realism, a relic of colonial learning, as a majority of them are self taught.   Aung Myint is one of them, he cuts a fine face as he moves into a concrete shed across from his house in a leafy suburb of Yangon. The Inya Art Gallery was established in 1989, by Aung Myint and his other artist friends as a space to encourage contemporary art practice in Burma. It was a place far from the censors at Lokanat and where Aung Myint initiated others into his fold.  Every Sunday other artists including the then young performer Htein Lin would visit and borrow books from its library and the space became an important place for discussion and free thought. Aung Myint through the use of a vocabulary that he has developed from the Burmese script creates giant abstracts inspired by Willem de Koonig, A series of Mother and Child line drawings are metaphors to remind the state of the nurturing role it needs to bear towards its citizens. 

Studio Square is a collective that shies away from the abstract expressionism championed by artists such as Aung Myint. The artists who form the group find their lineage in Khin Maung (Bank‘s) cubist modernisms and  the realisms of Bagyi Aung Soe. The members through their practice seek to establish a vocabulary that incorporates a western style with eastern traces.  Chan Aye often draws holes into copied masterpieces of Salvador Dali and others, infusing into them the Buddhist idea of nothingness or Sunyata - the zero, these works share their space with intricate diagrams of land art projects and sculptures he has been plotting since the 1980s where he plans to explore ideas such as ‘Vipassana’  or Insight. Phu Mon his partner makes digital collages resembling fantastical dreamscapes created on a computer bought initially for her son, pursuing a medium in a country where computers are seldom, the internet is monitored, and the supply of electricity short. 

North of Yangon is the ancient capital city of Mandalay, on a broad street, Suu Myin Thien along with Arr Lon, began a school to homeschool Lon’s daughters, that soon grew into a music and art school, and not long ago this year became the Mandalay Contemporary Arts Centre. Suu sustains himself as a teacher and by creating public sculptures based on epics, but he is also a prolific performance artist, venturing out a little more conceptually for performances leave no trace. 

As Burma moves into an era of promised changes,  art initiatives that had been vanguards to the idea of free speech and the political role of an individual, move to the fore.  Earlier on their activities had been considered subversive and despite the Junta’s secret police they refused to let art practice remain an aesthetic exercise. Sustaining themselves through collaborative codes of membership they survived in spite of a non-existent market for art or state patronage,  and were able to circumvent the defunct pedagogy of the state art school through a parallel system of underground art schools. Within the confines of their art spaces, artists rose only next to the monks in the civil rights movement for democratic change in Burma.

Zarganar, whose name means ‘Tweezers’  is a comedian, filmmaker, and performance artist who was released under the amnesty granted to political prisoners in 2011. He was arrested for his humorous political commentary on the generals and was sentenced to serve 59 years in jail. In his office at Bo Aung Kyaw street, the only picture that hangs on the wall is a black and white calendar print of Mahatma Gandhi. Since his release Zarganar directs documentaries and movies that herald the need for change with a group of young artists balancing time as he shuttles between meetings with Hillary Clinton and other civic responsibilities he holds, like being on the reconciliatory commission set up for the Rohingyas. Whispered to be a possible next Prime Minister designate under Aung San Suu Kyi, he uses the transformative role of Art in order to achieve a real understanding of freedom through compassionate nonviolent political change. 

Within smaller towns in the countryside, such at Tounggyi and on the banks of the Inlay lake artists organize themselves into small communities, their work often is pastoral capturing the idyllic landscapes that surround them. But where till a decade ago access to paint and canvas was government controlled and all exhibitions were censored by a committee of bureaucrats who feared the colour red - associating it with the banned communist party, a tradition of performance, artist guilds and visual strategies have developed turning artists into the last custodians of self-expression in Burma. Art plays a focal role in the political flux Burma sees itself in, often serving as the moderating factor in the change, as keepers of the country's conscience.  

Yangon, October 2012

Certain Economies allow for an eco-system for Art Practice that deals with the political political consciousness of a nation. Funding mechanisms often cannot reach out to artist communities in places such as Burma, where money transfers are regulated by sanctions and internal regulations.  Artists cannot always be allied to the cultural agendas of resident embassies in such situations because it require's them to toe the line of a certain political agenda of a foreign actor. In the northeast of India, where the denial of cultural sovereignty  has led to the manifestation of political movements that fight for the self-determination of the marginalised people, such self-organised collective artist groups act as the moderating force of expression for a people who find themselves unable to speak fearing the violence of the state or the terrorist groups promising to liberate them.  Such collective practices are also an economic union that make art practice possible where the state cannot be the benefactor nor the art market exists as a patron. India that has shared a certain political history with Burma, two nations brought together through colonialism, and since 1962 forced by the powers of political orientation to act indifferent to each other, have commonalities of culture : which one often encounters in the architectural facades,  cuisine , the Bengali community ,  and the in the aspirations of the people of Yangon. India betrayed its own intellectual and ideological commitment put forth by its Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indhira Gandhi who shared a close association with General Aung San and later Dao Aung San Suu Kyi, to the democratic movement in Burma by siding often with the military junta for geo-political reasons in its Northeast. As Myanmar opens up,  one encounters Indian businessmen in Yangon acting in greed , insensitive to  a people who know they are here for the teak, jade and natural gas.   They repeat the mistakes of the Indian moneylenders who once usurped large tracts of land in colonial Burma through usury, the reason  General Ne Win eventually expelled a large part of the Indian population in 1962. Artists in India face an uncertain precarious financial situation caused by a post economic-boom recessionary period where funding from agencies such as the Hivos,  Prince Claus Fund,  British Arts Council is no longer available to sustain alternative practice.  The art market mirroring the countries financial and property markets is now too expensive for its utilitarian value, speculated to a price from where a return would require a drastic and difficult re-negotiation - which shall hurt and take a long time. This interim period that we now find ourselves in concedes space within the cultural scene that was once held by commercial art galleries and funded institutions  for initiatives that mirror the art scene in Yangon.  The act requires a certain solidarity among curators,  artists and other stakeholders who create a certain eco-system for art.  Its needs us to think beyond the perimeters of the commercial and the non-commercial,  alternative and the funded,  and the hope for an organised infrastructure that makes art happen.