PanSuriya Art Post

New developments

A recent article in The Guardian included Pansodan co-owner Aung Soe Min’s comments. He is in there as one of the ‘winners’ in the changing business environment.

Here’s to hopes that almost all the winners are Burmese, or at least that benefits are fairly divided among those who sincerely work hard for the success of an enterprise — and not ‘fairly’ in the sense of ‘they are poor so they get only a poor share and should be glad of it; we are rich so we are the ones who get the money’.

There has been plenty of research on quality of life that shows that it depends on the perception of having a meaning or purpose to one’s life, and a warm social life with friends and family. Yet, when it comes to development, it is all about money. There is even a new trend to look at migration as something entirely positive as a development process — people migrate to Dubai or Australia or wherever, earn vastly more (i.e., are vastly more productive in economics terms), send remittances home, and thus are creators of development. True enough in pure economics terms, but this ignores the sacrifices that the migrants are making in non-economic factors, and the loss of social capital in their home community. (I am a migrant myself, so obviously not against migration, but I do not like to see it portrayed in black-and-white terms.) We know migrants who are important artists in various fields in Burma, but as migrants work in factories or do other work entirely unrelated to their talents. Those of us remaining behind, who appreciated their art regret this change in the meaning of their lives.

Pansodan’s contribution to improve the life or artists in their own country is the Independent Myanmar Artist Alliance, mentioned in the Guardian article. It was the idea of Aung Soe Min, and is hosted by Pansodan Gallery. It is a new model of professional association — somewhat like a union, but without most of the bureaucracy and positions that, no matter how noble the initial ideas, later tend to be used for obstruction and gain, or simply to lose their dynamism.

A few new drawings of the Lokanat, spirit of peace through art, by Eikaza Cho.

El Galerista

The Gallery Owner of Rangoon, by Carlos Sardiña Galache, published in FronteraDClick here for original article, which features even more pictures. This article has been translated into English and slightly edited for the Web. All photographs are by Carlos Sardiña Galache.

On the first floor of a dilapidated building in downtown Rangoon, a narrow staircase leads up to a small space that probably hold more contemporary art per square meter than anywhere else in the city: the Pansodan Gallery. Unlike other galleries, such as those at Bogyoke Aung San market that only sell paintings with “exotic” themes to satisfy the wildest orientalist fantasies of tourists, Pansodan reveals an art scene far richer than one would expect in a country like Myanmar (Burma) — mired in poverty, isolated for years from the rest of the world, and tightly controlled by one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world.
In its three years, the gallery, open every day of the week until six in the evening, has become a meeting place for artists and art enthusiasts. Burmese and foreigners all visit the gallery, not only to buy or sell pieces of art, but to have a tea, exchange ideas, attend a poetry reading, or simply to relax for a short while. The gallery’s owner, Aung Soe Min, is a gentle and kind man that welcomes visitors with Burmese hospitality, and always relaxed and happy to answer any questions.

Aung Soe Min was born 41 years ago in a small town in central Burma. Testifying to the country’s isolation, he says he never met a foreigner until he was twenty-five years old. After studying engineering, he spent several years in the publishing business and began collecting books. Today it has one of the largest libraries of Burma, and is visited by scholars from around the world.

In the late 1980s, after the collapse of the regime of General Ne Win and his “Burmese Way to Socialism,” there was a slight cultural opening when the military junta that succeeded tried to attract foreign investment. “The country was changing and I tried to take advantage of this to study everything I could,” says Aung Soe Min. He also tried to make films, but couldn’t always get the necessary permits, which, combined with a lack of official support or distribution, made it a nearly impossible undertaking.

During those years, Aung Soe Min met numerous writers and artists, and seeing that that the country lacked the “infrastructure and market necessary for artists to distribute their works,” he decided to open his own gallery in 2005. It took him three years, but in 2008, after overcoming many obstacles and using the profits he made from selling “three especially valuable paintings” he was able to buy a property on downtown Pansodan Street, close to the old colonial neighbourhood at the heart of the city, and open his gallery.

Sai Htun Oo : Two goldfish

“At that time there were several galleries in Rangoon, but the majority catered exclusively to foreign clients. Burmese people did not even visit many of these galleries, or if they did it was only when accompanying a foreigner. What I’m trying to do here is create a space that’s open to the whole world,” says Aung Soe Min. His purpose isn’t only to “sell paintings, but also awaken Burmese people’s interests in the arts. When people say that I promote artists, I say no, I’m promoting a public.”

According to Aung Soe Min, works from some two hundred artists are for sale at the Pansodan Gallery, which is not hard to believe since every day new paintings appear on the walls or scattered around the floor. “Artists will often come in and tell me they need money urgently. They bring me a painting, and if I like it I buy it myself and then try to resell it. Most other galleries, on the other hand, usually don’t pay artists until they sell their works,” he explains.

It’s not easy being an artist in Burma. The poverty, lack of opportunity, and scarce knowledge of or interest in contemporary art make developing an artistic career far more difficult than in other countries. One of the young artists that displays his work at the Pansodan Gallery, Ein Aye Kyaw, made a hard living painting by commission, especially traditional landscapes after studying zoology and fine arts at the University of Rangoon. He decided to devote himself professionally to art five years ago when he saw a man painting on his street and thought “he’s the only person that really looks tranquil and happy.” That man became his first teacher.

Ein Aye Kyaw with his painting

Ein Aye Kyaw’s paintings are of a simple, impressionist style that he polishes in each painting, depicting ordinary scenes or images that, as he explains, draw you in without your really knowing why – an old taxi in the rain, a child playing in a park, or the strange structure of the Arakanese Kingdom, a half-pagoda, half-military fort palace that came to him after seeing an official building in Naypyidaw, Burma’s new capital that the military junta built in the middle of the jungle six years ago.

Toothed Guitar, by Yè Min

Looking around the gallery, one may find the expressive sculpture by the artist Ye Min: a guitar with teeth in the sound hole biting its own strings. The gallery also exhibits portraits of the Burmese democratic opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, which would have been unthinkable just a few months earlier. In any case, government control over the arts is not as strict as with literature or the press. “The government simply isn’t interested and doesn’t care about art. They don’t help us, but they don’t cause problems either. They ignore us,” comments Aung Soe Min.

But artistic freedom is sometimes constrained by prejudice and bias. Burmese society is profoundly conservative and does not tolerate, for example, the exhibition of nudes, nor is it legal. At the same time, the art world is imbued with a sense of tradition and hierarchy, turning itself into a closed shop where innovation is not always well received. The rejection of modern art forms in Burmese art dates back to the colonial era, when for many years “Western” influence was considered a threat to the cultural purity of the nation. Painters like Bagyi Aung Soe (1924-1990), considered by many to be the father of modern Burmese art, fought a long cultural battle for the acceptance of artistic ideas that were looked down upon as “foreign” by the purists. From this arose the expression “crazy art” to describe modern and abstract art.

Aung San Suu Kyi portrait by Myint San Myint

This battle has not yet come to an end, but the pieces on exhibit at the Pansodan Gallery show the growing presence of contemporary artistic styles, and that realist art lives side by side with the abstract, the expressionist, or pop. The Burmese artistic scene is very eclectic, and has seen a slight boom in recent years, as well as a surge in interest overseas. Several artists now exhibit their works in neighbouring countries, as well as the United States and United Kingdom.

Myo Nyunt Khin : Shan Dance

Nonetheless, very few Burmese people can buy paintings or sculptures, even though nearly half of the buyers at Pansodan are from Burma. With the art market so underdeveloped, people rarely buy works as an investment, a trait which differentiates them from collectors in other countries. According to Aung Soe Min, for a Burmese person “buying a painting is a personal decision.” Another peculiarity in Burma is that people like to collect, almost obsessively, the largest number of works as possible from a single artist. “They don’t care if they have one hundred paintings from only one painter. Often, they store the paintings and alternate them on the walls of their homes.”

Driven by his love of collecting, Aung Soe Min has embarked on a parallel project, a history of Burmese graphic art since the colonial era. He is working together with Kirt Mausert, a young American anthropologist living in Rangoon who also helps manage the gallery. Mausert explains that the goal is to publish a book that “explores, through publicity and propaganda, the changes in social relations that the country has experienced in recent history,” an unprecedented approach in Burmese historiography. For this project, they have created an archive of old photographs, newspapers, postcards and propaganda advertisement that they have acquired at innumerable places around the streets of central Rangoon. In many cases, it’s the vendors themselves that come to the gallery to offer the materials they’ve acquired.

Cover of The Rangoon Daily, 5 December 1964

Mausert is convinced that the project will help shed light on the recent history of Burmese art, especially as the vast majority of painters combine their personal artistic careers with other commercial work like advertising or comics, a very popular genre in the country, however “the artistic value of these commercial works is not decreased when they do more serious art. There is no stigma against painters doing commercial work, and both activities influence each other.”

“The historiography of Burma has suffered many distortions in recent years,” explains Soe Min. “In any case, it is based on the texts, not the images produced by society, which aren’t treated with why importance when it comes time to reconstruct history. Hardly anybody values these kinds of things, and I think they should be conserved in a museum.” Faced with neglect by the government, the conservation of the visual legacy of the country, as well as promotion of cultural and artistic life, depends almost exclusively on the enthusiastic work of people like Aung Soe Min.