Myanmar, once known as Burma during the British Colonial Era, is one of the most socio-politically fascinating countries in South-East Asia and throughout contemporary history. I say this because though it is my country of origin, there are so many things about Burma I still find incredibly perplexing.
Being born in such a country while it was still under totalitarian rule, it is surreal to be part of the generation that experiences its ongoing transition into democracy; facilitated by the population of rising youth activists, artists and authors who play a key role in being symbols of resilience, yet are under-represented and under-appreciated in the mainstream society. As the country steadily opens up, the art scene of Myanmar continues to grow into a community of rising artists, authors, performers, investors and entrepreneurs all sharing the same interest and desire to play a part in developing the nation.One of these groups of communities is Myanm/art (pronounced ‘myan-mart’), found by Nathalie Johnston in 2012 initially as a platform to support a growing amount of archives related to contemporary art in Myanmar.
There is no doubt that for most of us, the first few things that flash through our minds upon hearing ‘Myanmar’ are Bagan landscapes and women wearing Thanakha. Albeit these things are elements of the culture, they overwhelm and veil the growing amount of extremely talented modern and contemporary artists within the country, whose works are still, very well just as Burmese.
Myanm/art was founded to support these undervalued and somewhat hidden artists and showcase their talents to the local public and to all of us around the world. Myanm/art works together with artists, galleries and curators from across the globe and the country to fulfill its aforementioned mission by organizing regular events, talks and exhibitions mainly focusing on local artists. Occasionally it hosts international exhibitions that cover a wider range of artists and audience both inside and outside the country. Myanm/art founder Nathalie Johnston is also the Director of TS.1 Yangon, an established local art organization. She was responsible for bringing a major international art exhibition “A Beast a God and a Line” from Hong Kong to Yangon.
I visited this exhibition (which is also informally known as the BGL Exhibition) during the period of the first two weeks of June. The exhibition was curated by Cosmin Costinas, brought together by TS1 Yangon and with the support of credible international art organizations such as Samdani Art Foundation, Para/Site, and MOMA Warsaw, held at the iconic Secretariat Building (also known as The Minister’s Building) in central Yangon.
Walking into the exhibition, what I saw was so much intelligent talent that deserves a tremendous amount of observation and analytical ploughing through by the general public. Each artist presented a unique story yet all came together in one space to portray a unified thematic message. Art is subjective to each member of an audience, and my perception was that this message was to bring to light the remnants of cultural intertwining and conflicts throughout the modern art history in Asia Pacific. This article highlights some of the works that I felt particularly drawn to within the exhibition, and my review is based through both of my subjective and camera lens.
Malala Andrialavidrazana – presented as intricately put-together collages of 19th Century European maps, her work here showcases the Age of Western Imperialism through fragments of banknote designs from across the globe to illustrate the respective issuing country’s vision of what an ideal society ought to look like. These maps are highly hypothetical than any accurate, however reveals a jaw-dropping kaleidoscope of world ideologies on conquering, possession and illusions beheld by the Age of Colonialism and the aftermaths of it.
What was even more stunning is that these collages showed to have required so much dexterity – magnifying glasses were provided under each work for us to be able to inspect every minute detail of it. Malala was born in Madagascar and currently lives and works in Paris, France.
Pablo Bartholomew – presented as photographs and woven textiles, Pablo’s work showcased an indigenous community in Northeast India whose ‘cultural DNA’ fingerprint was on their facial profiles and expressions, clothing and markings on their bodies. He aims to link the geographically fractured indigenous ethnic minorities in Myanmar, India and Bangladesh. This happened to be the Chakma community that is represented here, whom he is related from his maternal heritage. Pablo was born in New Delhi, India, and also currently lives and works there.
Garima Gupta – Guptas work was presented as a beautiful tapestry of cotton (called the Manjar-Pat), on which these particular species of birds were drawn from none other rawer material than charcoal. It dives into the wildlife trade of an endemic species of birds from the island of New Guinea, called the birds-of-paradise (scientific name: Paradisaeidae). These birds were brutally traded in the late 19th to early 20th century which resulted in the first ecological protest campaigns in Europe. The highly exotic feathers of the species were a symbol of high status during the European colonial era. Quite famously in 1996, these birds have also been profiled by David Attenborough in his BBC documentary ‘Attenborough in Paradise’.
Gupta was born in New Delhi and currently lives and works in Bengaluru, India.
Simon Soon – Soon’s works here were presented as wooden panels beholding characteristic carvings that aims to tell its own story in different episodes on King Halakaua of Hawaii’s round-the-world diplomatic travels in the late 1800s to bring attention to different world leaders, on the small island. Each panel captures four different incidents of diplomatic exchange around the Asia Pacific rim.
The idea was conceptualised by Soon who is a writer and a researcher which was then passed on to illustrator RJ Camacho, who based to design the work influenced by a Filipino modernist painter Carlos Botong Francisco’s theatrical tableaux that allows the characters to be elevated into consciousness – giving its distinctive life-like appeal. Ka Celing, a master woodcarver from Paete (Laguana, Philippines), crafted the carving. The episodes on each tablet shows the king’s travel from San Francisco, Japan, Siam and Jahore respectively.
Panel 1, for instance, shows here the King being welcomed by an extravagant Chinese banquet hosted by China’s Consul-General of the time to thank him for the ‘kind treatment’ of Hawaiian-based Chinese workers. I was particularly impressed by each character within the round table seemingly having their own role in the time capsule – with their own portrayals of interactivity amongst other characters. The fact that one could see well-defined details of frozen actions such as the holding of the chopsticks is again another brilliant example of a master craftsmanship.
Panel 3 *below) shows the King and his party on their way departing from Siam (Thailand) to Singapore, being seated on a 24-oared steamer called ‘Bangkok’. The positioning of different characters within the panel might indicate the differences in power and authority hierarchies among the members of the King’s party.
Simon Soon was born in Malaysia and is based in Kuala Lumpur.
In my opinion, these particular works of art by Soon tell us an interesting perspective of late 19th century diplomacy amongst the various political sentiments and ambitions of the characters involved. Given the fact that the actions of the King later brought about the first political uprising in Asia, the Philippine Revolution, the works also seem prompt the audience to imagine the scopes of the impacts of diplomacy as we know it by retrospective questioning.
These are just four of the total number of ‘60’ artists that the exhibition showcased! One cannot help but find it astonishing that such a vast number and range of artists can possibly produce greatly and uniquely diverse collection of works with a ringing intellectual harmony. We may be very well surprised that the appreciation, discussion and open dialogue of the work of our generation’s modern artists as such mean not just listening to their voices but also of those of people and stories they portray, might be able to bring a fresh perspective of cultural reformation we could be missing out on.
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