‘Burmese Vignettes’ charts a lesser known path to democracy
By Mary Ann Lim
‘Burmese Vignettes: Devotion and Protest’, at Intersections Gallery from 21 September to 21 October, shines a germane spotlight on a selection of Burmese artists whose works have the potential to augment current discourse on Myanmar’s developing socio-political situation.
Despite the prolific political research on Myanmar circulating academic or media spaces, little is known or documented within the international art community about Myanmar’s contemporary art scene. It seems that this peculiar disparity between the regional art movement and Myanmar’s nascent one is volleyed from two main sources.
The first can be traced back to crippling censorship laws that have also led to an artistic climate which journalist Andrew Ranard called in 1994, “a Galapagos Islands of art, where styles had evolved into arrested forms.”. The second is the lacuna of presently-known English publications about their art. Marie Pierre-Mol, co-founder of Intersections Gallery, explains that the specific situation of Myanmar as a country that was hermetically isolated for 50 years may have provided the very conditions for the above two phenomena to manifest.
As a lone gallery pioneering under-the-radar Southeast Asian artists in Singapore, the display at Intersections not only builds a timely bridge between the international market and the Burmese art scene. Marie’s belief is that these artists have the potential to become the movers and shakers of their country and will eventually be recognised as a significant part of art history.
It is on this count that ‘Burmese Vignettes’ provides an invaluable cosmopolitan space for these interlocutors of history to disrupt preconceived narratives and cement representation within the complex artistic developments of the region. After all, the value of their work can increase only if there is a better understanding of their practice within the international community.
Deliberating on the artists’ role as potential memory keepers and modern activists within Myanmar, the artworks showcased are a complex rendering of Myanmar’s civil society. While the country’s political transition was a cause for celebration and heralded in a time of widespread enthusiasm, a portion of the artist community was very lucid in expressing their mixed feelings and dissenting views on canvas.
Created between a recent time period of 2012 to 2018, the themes and issues explored within the pieces do not stray too far from the public’s current consciousness. Sometimes they function as harbingers and signs of a possible dismal future, and at other times, their tongue-in-cheek depictions of political figures and the Burmese people articulate incisive criticisms about the precarious situation Myanmar is currently in.
For instance, ‘Red Me’, a video created just this year by artist Nyein Chan Su (NCS), warns of a possible new explosion of violence that might occur with the mounting tensions amidst accusations of injustice dealt towards the Rohingya and the press.
Prints by street artist Bart Was Not Here feature a pop art style reminiscent of the American print revival, transplanting the headshots of notorious figures such as Ashin Wirathu, Ne Win and Tan Shwe onto colourful, graphic backgrounds. What results is a jarring contrast between the undercurrents of violence that mark these personalities, and their visually cheerful framing that signifies all at once an explicit irreverence, mockery and a thinly-veiled censure against the brutal strictures they impose.
Not all the paintings in ‘Burmese Vignettes’ reject or parody past forms however. The ‘Loving Kindness’ series by artist Tartie retains Buddhist imagery as its main form of expression, while explicitly referencing the Buddhist concept of “Metta” to parallel Aung San Su Kyi’s main beliefs that drive her political actions.
Artists Phyu Mun and Chan Aye also adopt the same name for their installation that is taken from their seminal exhibition ‘7 Decades’. Here, the theme of “Metta” is used to commemorate the Sangha uprising in 2007, otherwise known as the Saffron Revolution, and the centrepieces of upturned alms bowls are a direct allusion to the monks who, in an act of defiance towards the government, turned their alms bowls around.
Where the implications of protest merge with the peace of Buddhist teachings, there are nevertheless, unmistakable shades of red that loom across the entirety of the exhibition. It is for the audience, a visceral reminder of the bloodshed that has stained Myanmar’s history.
Notably, Min Zaw’s ‘The Loss of Identity’ features his idiosyncratic, elegant line drawing of people found in his earlier series ‘Women’, placed against a red background. Yet, the intended effect is not to accentuate the serenity and sensuality of his characters. On the contrary: the uniform faces sporting identical shirts with Aung San Suu Kyi’s face on it are a disarming look into the pessimism and discomfort of his generation that have grown up within a political atmosphere of dispossession and violence.
‘Time O’ Clock’ by Aung Soe Min on the other hand, is a distortion of the Samsara. Black thick lines alluding to ignorance imprison an ambiguous figure within, while the semblance of an alarm clock imprinted over in red, is a crimson and grisly metaphor for religion’s strictures.
What is particularly striking about the exhibition’s curation is its careful culling of artists whose avant-garde vision marks a significant departure from the general milieu. Rather than painting strictly within the purview of non-controversial traditional art with its depictions of Buddhism or Burmese landscapes, or what Ranard described as “arrested forms”, the works go against the grain to establish a visual language that is unique to their community.
In an oblique shift that yokes together contemporary and traditional techniques, these artists have developed a new style that actively wields Burmese art as a conduit for the freedom of expression. It should therefore come to no surprise that Marie’s curatorial strategies have been influenced by Paul Durand Ruel. Ruel, in his time, put the Impressionists on the map despite the opinion of art critics and institutions; in a similar fashion, Marie hopes to do the same with these Burmese artists she has championed.
This is not the first time that Intersections has endorsed new and lesser known artists in the region to greater heights. Previous artists include Nicola Anthony, a British artist who, after her show at Intersections, was approached by Singapore Art Museum for a solo commission and whose work was shortlisted for the Sovereign Art Prize 2018; and Hélène le Chatelier, a French artist whose showcased works under the Intersections booth at Art Paris Art Fair were completed sold out and has been re-commissioned by Art Stage Singapore 2019 to create an installation for the fair.
While there are commercial challenges to operating the gallery in such a way, there are also intangible benefits to be reaped. As Marie says, “When one promotes emerging artists, most of the collectors buy on a “coup de coeur” (love at first sight) basis. However, as a gallerist, it is even better to realise that the value of the works produced by the artists you are promoting is increasing.”