[Earlier this year my friend Ian Holliday staged an art exhibition at the University of Hong Kong. He is following up with a second one at City University of Hong Kong, starting next week. Below Ian sets the scene. - NG]
In Myanmar, a gradual removal of strict authoritarian controls over the past couple of years has enabled creative artists to give increasingly free rein to their talents. The weight of censorship was perhaps never quite as heavy for painters as it was for writers and film makers, because government officials typically had little understanding of their art, and limited concern about its political impact. Nevertheless, in the long dark night of state socialism from 1962 to 1988 and then military rule from 1988 to 2011, many subjects were taboo, many styles were frowned upon, and even some colours were banned. Today, almost all of these restrictions have been lifted, and any residual censorship is generally light-touch. At the same time, Myanmar's rapid reopening to the outside world has triggered renewed global interest in its cultural landscape and heritage. The result is an explosion of artistry and flair inside the country.
The painters now emerging do not comprise a single generation. Indeed, even the sixteen artists brought together in this exhibition, all but one of whom are male, range in age from early twenties to early seventies. Nevertheless, there is clearly something of a cohort effect among present-day painters, focused on the major city and core artistic hub of Yangon. Within the conurbation, some artists have created an informal alliance, others have formed a mutual support association, many meet sporadically in downtown galleries such as Pansodan and Nawaday Tharlar, and still others are content to be loosely connected on the fringes of these overlapping networks. In an ever more liberal society, all are aware of advances made by fellow artists, and keen to learn from them in developing their own styles.
Equally, contemporary painters look to traditions stretching many centuries into the past. Nearly one thousand years ago, Bagan in the dry central plains of Myanmar became a key site in the evolution of Theravada Buddhism. Currently it boasts two thousand temples and stupas. Here line painting designed to instruct the faithful and gain merit for sponsors remains visible in both austere and exuberant murals painted in the earth tones from which natural pigments were made: black, brown, green, yellow, and deep red. From an animist spirit world came thirty-seven nats, god-like figures derived from historical beings held still to watch over human affairs. The minority ethnic nationalities found in contemporary Myanmar also generated distinctive cultures. All of these traditions provide inspiration for artists today.
Overlaid on these indigenous influences were pressures from outside. Some reach far back in time, for the land the British mapped as Burma in the mid-nineteenth century has long been shaped by the great Asian civilizations to the east and west of Myanmar's current borders. More insistent in the past two centuries, though, were contacts with the West imported above all by Britain, which asserted imperial control over Burma through wars fought in 1824-26, 1852 and 1885. Colonialism introduced to Burma not only western cultural traditions, but also wealthy officials keen, in a small but significant number of cases, to encourage and support local artists. Eventually it also facilitated the spread of modernist ideas, though a progressively hostile climate after independence ensured that the imprint was never large. More recently, growing use of the Internet initially through cybercafés in urban areas and then through smartphones has delivered international influences directly into the country. Many contemporary painters draw on this eclectic mix in their work.
The result is that many ideas now swirl in cultural circles, and diverse artistic responses are made to the assorted reforms sweeping Myanmar. Some painters are openly political, and others make vague or obscure reference to current events. Most have no overt political intent, however, seeking simply to depict a society in which much is changing, but much is also largely unaltered. Together, the paintings assembled in this exhibition, all of which date from the current transitional era, thereby comprise important primary source material from a critical phase in the country's history. While individuals in other walks of life attempt to capture the period in words, photographs, music and dance, painters portray it in pictures of faces and places that are stunning to behold, and intriguing to contemplate. (Ian Holliday, The University of Hong Kong)