Alex Mackenzie is an award-winning artist whose art works are in museum collections in Spain, Argentina, Honduras, and Venezuela. She has a exhibition at Pansodan Scene, with a reception on 13 December, and paintings on show until 19 December. Recently she spoke with Pansodan’s Nance Cunningham about her life and art.
How many countries have you lived in?
Myanmar is my seventh, after Italy, Spain, Venezuela, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Sri Lanka (not including UK where I was born and studied).
How long have you lived here?
About 15 months.
Have you been able to travel around the country?
We have been lucky enough to travel to Kyaikhtiyo, Mawlamyaing, Hpa-an, Bagan, Mandalay, Inlay Lake, Kalaw, Taungoo, Bago and Ngapali.
As an artist, what is the most striking thing about this country?
Well, every time we move it takes a while to find out what I’m going to work on. A year ago I started on the massive, ancient trees, which I used to draw in Rome a lot, then I drew inside pagodas and there people started creeping in to my sketches. In Rome I didn’t focus on people at all, though before that I worked on live dance for years, so I have obviously missed figure drawing. Here, of course, we have the wonderful and unique thanakha, which is like a paint and an art form in itself. I am fascinated by it and can’t stop trying to capture the smeared and worn away effect.
Now and again I’ll have a go at architecture, because that is a good discipline to keep the drawing skills alive, but what I am attracted to is the mouldy surfaces and plant life growing in the cracks, then there are the pipes and wires, over hanging and winding their way through branches. But overall the people of Myanmar are my favourite subject. I am trying to make portraits of the every day people we see, who often look back at me, so I hope to capture the feeling that we are both looking at each other in this quickly changing environment, with interest, curiosity and warmth.
Sometimes you teach. What do you learn by teaching?
I get pleasure out of creating a learning environment and asking myself ‘How can this, or that, help these people learn? What needs to change?’ So each class is like research, asking myself questions and observing. I am learning that what people do in a class is more important than what a teacher says, people learn in different ways and they have to use their English or Art in order to progress.
Do you have a favourite painter? Who and why?
I don’t have a favourite, no, but there are famous and not famous artists that I admire. I like to look at websites with contemporary artists just to see what people are doing. Art goes in waves of fashion, just like clothes and music so you see changes and people copying others. But in galleries you can’t beat getting up close to the work and seeing the textures and trying to work out the techniques.
I would say that I am interested in any artist who is trying to develop themselves in some way, where you can see a journey or exploration and experimentation with materials or ideas. The (mostly) dead and famous artists I return to in books are Renaissance and Roman sculptures, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Matisse, Paul Gauguin, Egon Schiele, Marisol, Jesus Soto, Lucien Freud, Paula Rego, Pierre Bonnard, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Bill Woodrow (probably showing my 1980s art education there!). I also like Chinese ink drawings and there are plenty of Myanmar artists I am discovering. In the end the artist’s intent has to communicate itself, in some form, to the viewer. If the goal was to copy another and make money I think it shows!
You have been in contact with many artist communities in different places. What is unusual about the artist community of Yangon?
Well, there seem to be many well established organised groups of photographers, filmmakers, poets, painters, dancers and musicians, but it appears to me that artists from the different groups don’t seem to know each other very much. In Venezuela, for example, the artists were friendly with the musicians, in Spain the dancers knew painters and musicians. But I am not immersed in Myanmar life enough to really know. Here we have been welcomed by everybody we meet and there is a thriving arts community which is much more accessible than in other places. In some countries the artist groups might be more élitist and competitive, for example.
I would like to add something [Pansodan Gallery’s] Aung Aung [Aung Soe Min] relayed to me when we met in my early days here. He mentioned that when he asked an artist friend which one of his own works he liked best, the answer was ‘The next one!’ And I totally appreciate that.
We are always thinking of the next piece, and so never satisfied with the finished pieces. I keep about ten pieces which mean something to me for one reason or another, otherwise they are all stepping stones towards the next and better effort.
Alex Mackenzie’s exhibition at Pansodan Scene will run from 14–19 December 2013, open 10–6.
There will be a prize draw for a painting. Buy a ticket for 500 kyat, and get a chance to take home a painting of your choice on 19 December.
The winning ticket will be drawn at midnight on Tuesday 17 December, at Pansodan Gallery, First Floor, 286 Pansodan Street, Yangon.
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