NYTimes: New Freedom for Myanmar’s Artists

YANGON, Myanmar — In past years, even if Sandar Khine’s artworks — jarringly bright acrylic nudes — made it past the military censors and into exhibitions, they were draped in black cloth and always placed in back corners.
Now, Ms. Khine’s life-size, psychedelic canvases have come out of the shadows. Myanmar’s new quasi-civilian government abolished the military censorship board in 2012, fueling a liberalization of the arts. Subjects that were once forbidden are now commonplace. The new freedom of expression has turned much art away from the traditional and military-sanctioned subjects of pagodas and landscapes into political ones like the opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and her father, General Aung San, the revolutionary hero.
The work of dozens of local artists once only known in small circles is now receiving ample attention at home, especially in Yangon, where the art scene has grown from just a few galleries in 2012 to more than 30 today.
As the local market is flooded with new works, once-forbidden art is also entering the international circuit.
An exhibition opening on Saturday in Hong Kong highlights the transformation. “Banned in Burma: Painting Under Censorship” at the Hong King Visual Arts Center shows the work of 20 artists, including Ms. Khine, who risked creating their art under an oppressive regime.
“Now, I can do whatever I want and show my work freely as I intended it to be,” Ms. Khine said from her converted garage studio on the outskirts of Yangon. One of her paintings at the Hong Kong show, “Untitled,” depicts a nude man seen from the back as he is squatting and clutching his head against a blood red backdrop.
Also on display will be two works from the late painter Khin Muang Yin’s now famous series “Seated Dancer,” the subjects of which are all missing hands: a code for protest against the house arrest of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi. Though this series evaded censorship by using euphemisms, Zwe Yan Naing’s work was more direct. In his once-banned 2011 piece “Reborn,” he depicts General Aung San, who was assassinated, as being reborn from a naked pregnant woman.
“The paintings should be helping people understand something about what Myanmar has been through in the past few decades,” said Ian Holliday, a political science professor at the University of Hong Kong and co-curator of “Banned in Burma.”
The exhibition is the latest example of the international spotlight on artists from Myanmar. Ms. Khine’s work was exhibited in January at the Art Stage Singapore international fair and at London’s Start art fair in June, while Mr. Yin’s work has been displayed at the Suvannabhumi Art Gallery in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Aside from the 20 artists selected for the show, a number of local artists have also made a name for themselves internationally, including Aung Myint — famous for his monochromatic drawings — and the artistic couple Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung, who use photographs, paintings and installations to depict different aspects of Myanmar society. All three were featured at the Guggenheim in February as a part of its “No Country” exhibition.
“There is an extremely fast development in the arts,” said Borbala Kalman, a Hungarian art historian and expert on Myanmar art who is now living in Yangon. Attention from abroad is growing every week, she said, with new “exhibitions, articles and invitations for residency programs.”
The picture was quite different three years ago. While the Ministry of Information’s censorship board focused on banning offending artworks, at times the artists themselves were incarcerated. The painter Maung Theid Dhi, for example, was sent to prison in 1976 for 10 days for publicly displaying a self-portrait with a real chain wrapped around it to depict life under military oppression.
During the junta, basic art supplies such as acrylics were scarce in the market, and artists struggled to make a living, many taking second jobs.
“It was very difficult back then,” said Myo Nyunt Khin, another local artist. “There was no market to sell work other than illustrating for journals and there were no studios. I had no place to paint.”
More disconcerting, however, was the often blurred line between acceptable and offensive. Ms. Khine and Mr. Myint said that landscapes and other seemingly nonthreatening works were confiscated if they contained the color red, which the military interpreted as being violent and promoting resistance. Similarly, Ms. Khine recalls being forbidden from displaying a work depicting old city buildings sprouting plant life because it was seen as a criticism of public upkeep.
“If they didn’t like it they simply took it away,” Mr. Myint said.
Scrolling through an anthology of his work on a laptop in Yangon’s Pansodan Gallery, the painter Bagyi Lynn Wunna said he served a full year in prison in 1994 for including a peacock in his artwork — a symbol long associated with student rebellion against the government.
“I am not afraid anymore,” he said, gazing at his 2012 work “In the Room,” a large acrylic on canvas depicting six white doves crowding in front of the black jail door where he once served his sentence.
Some artists are experimenting with well-known styles like Cubism, while others are looking to the distant past for inspiration: using techniques like embroidery and gold threads on tapestries to reconstruct mythology.
As modern artwork and tourism grow (the Ministry of Tourism expects earnings from tourism to reach more than $1 billion this year, compared with $534 million in 2012) new high-end private galleries like TS1, which is housed in an old transit shed, have also begun to spring up in Yangon.
International exposure has also meant that artists are now receiving more for their work. Mr. Min and Ms. Karman, the art historian, say that some local artists can earn tens of thousands of dollars for work they would have been lucky to get hundreds for just three years ago.
Despite the encouraging direction of Myanmar’s burgeoning art scene, some believe there is still a long way to go. There are currently just two art schools, both of which are poorly funded by the government.
“Local artists are still struggling a lot as many need to continue developing the skills they require to show the kind of work they want to,” Mr. Min said. “We need money to open specialized schools. This is the time for progress.”

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