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Matter of Art

There is a growing interest in Burmese contemporary art. The artists in the country are teeming with life as they showcase their work to the world. Myanmar’s art galleries are packed with beautiful and engaging pieces. With so many tourists visiting Southeast Asia, it’s perhaps more evident that art is created for the buyer, rather than being an expression of the soul. As the tourist inflow is increas- ing, so is the investment in art by the foreign buyers. Curators from major museums all over the world are coming and meeting with Burmese artists. New opportunities are coming up and local art galleries are exhib- iting avant-garde works. Some large impres- sionist paintings and unique abstract works are sold for over $10,000 depending on the reputation of the artist and the quality of his or her work.

“It’s time to invest in Burmese art. The dominant reason is that it comes with a relatively reasonable price tag, making it attractive for higher future financial return, as well as making it affordable for novice collectors to begin their collecting jour- ney” says Aung Zaw, a reputed artist based in Yangon. Echoing the same idea, the art curator Thin May Li says, “Myanmar’s art business has the potential to grow exponen- tially, not only because of its small start, but simply because of the wealth of skills and the talents of its artists”.

What is drawing the investors to the Myan- mar art is its unique concepts and design. The artists combine Eastern and Western techniques and merge Buddhist concepts with Western abstract art. The art analysts are of the view that the previous suppression of artistic expression in Myanmar has made Myanmar art all the more complex and in- formed. This aspect has raised the value of the Myanmar artists at the international level. A number of artists took some risks during the worst years of dictatorship and paid a price. Among the top performing artists are two in self-imposed exile: New York- based Chaw Ei Thein, whose 2008 Pagoda of Sugar at the Singapore Biennale drew attention and Htein Lin, a former political prisoner for six years, now based in London. But traditionally it wasn’t so. The traditional Burmese art was always rather abstract in character, mystical in orientation and vi- brant with suggestion. It was never strictly realist. Mythical and legendary themes were favoured over historical subjects, though de- pictions of everyday realities figured along with fabulous personages and floral ara- besques. “Traditional Burmese vision has been greatly influenced by Theravada Bud- dhism for over a millennium since the Gold- en Age of Bagan when architects, painters and sculptors sought to express transcen- dental ideals in temples, murals and sculp- tures, often the form of illustrations from Buddhist scriptural tales” says Aung Myint who is a reputed self-taught professional artist and the founder of Inya Art Gallery in Yangon. Aung Myint was the first Burmese artist to win the ASEAN Art Awards in 2002 with a set of nine paintings from his Mother and Child series. He further adds, “Intuition was preferred over mere imitation by the artists. Their “inner vision” can be seen to share common aspects with Western modern art: the spirituality of Kandinsky’s and Rothko’s abstractions, the dreamlike distortions of Surrealism, the emotive colour of Expressionism,the bold geometries of Cubism”.

Despite still having the impressions of Vic- torian and Edwardian schools of art, in this age of globalization, Burmese contemporary art has developed rather on its own terms. Currently there are probably around 200 professional artists working in Myanmar. Lokanat, Yangon’s first art gallery, located in a dilapidated downtown colonial build- ing, became the place where artists and intellectuals would gather for ‘open house’ and impromptu exhibitions.

By visiting some of the most established commercial art galleries in the capital city of Yangon (mainly on Strand Road), it be- comes obvious that the artists’ emphasis is on survival. The works that sell the most – usually under $1000 – depict the ubiquitous images in a variety of post-impressionistic styles are of monks, Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda and the temples of Pagan. Major tourists visiting the country want to take these paintings back home as souvenirs. The sale of the paintings provides a number of artists with a living. In downtown Yan- gon the walls of the Pansodan Gallery are adorned with such images. Here the Amer- ican Nance Cunningham and her Burmese partner Aung Soe Min lend moral and finan- cial support to a large group of artists whose work they have been following for at least a decade. The place also functions as a drop-in centre for a loyal crowd of enthusiastic lo- cals and expats to informally exchange ideas and information.

It’s heartening for the local artists that Myanmar art is expanding in internation- al market. Art galleries are coming up in neighbouring countries like Thailand, Sin- gapore and South Korea. Curators of these galleries are mounting shows that bring together conceptual artists such as Kaung Su, who paints expressionists daubs over photos of iconic historic moments and the older generation of pioneers under one roof. Encouraged by the reformist government, a few exiles are giving up their studios in New York to return home. Museums in South- east and East Asia, notably in Singapore and the National Art Gallery of Malaysia, plus Fukuoka, in Japan, have been steadily

acquiring works which has led to the prices notching up. In the US a work by the highly traditional Myanmar artist U Lun Gyew went for US$20,000. Curator Shireen Naziree who is a former trustee of the National

Art Gallery of Malaysia says, “Myanmar art lacks sophistication and scholarship of oth- er Southeast Asian nations. The potential is there but it needs guidance and in reality it could be a long road ahead”.