PanSuriya Art Post

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.

Senses of Layers : Myint San Myint

“I grew up with silkscreening, it is the family business. It was silkscreens that first excited my appreciation. Most of my most of my works have come to include some silkscreening. To build the silkscreen into a work of art, I create layers upon layers, using strokes and flicks of the brush as well. Images emerge from between these layers, and I focus on the meanings of the images, the variations, the depths, the hints, the shadows. That is the art of it.”

Myint San Myint’s techniques do not reproduce well in a photograph. You need to see the layers on canvas, so come to his new exhibition, starting 3 January 2012 to explore them at Pansodan Art Gallery.

ကျွန်တော်သည် မိရိုးဖလာအရ ပိုးပန်းချီပညာနှင့် အကျွမ်း​ဝင်ခဲ့​ပါသည်။ ပိုးပန်းချီ​ဖန်တီးမှုက​​ကျွန်တော်၏​အာရုံ​ခံစားမှုများ​အတွက် အင်အား​ဖြစ်​စေခဲ့သည်။ ပိုးပန်းချီနှင့် အကျုံး​ဝင်သော​ဖွဲ့စည်းမှု အနုပညာကိုသာ အများဆုံး​လုပ်ဖြစ်​လာခဲ့သည်။ အနုပညာလက်ရာ​တစ်ခုဖြစ်​လာ​အောင် ဖန်တီး​ရသော​အလွှာလွှာ အထပ်ထပ်၊ ဆေးစက်၊ ရေးချက်။ ထိုအလွှာ​များ​ကြားက ပေါ်လာ​သော​အရုပ်များ၊ ထိုအရုပ်များကြားမှ အနက်​အရှိုင်း၊ မတူခြားနားသော ပုံရိပ်တို့၊ ရေးချက်တို့ဖြင့် ဖွဲ့စည်း​သွားသော အဓိပ္ပါယ်တို့သည် ကျွန်တော်​ဝင်စား​ကျက်စားရာ အနုပညာ​​ဖြစ်လာ​ကြသည်။

ထိုသို့ ဖန်တီးရင်း ဆရာ​ဗဂျီ​အောင်စိုး၏ လက်ရာများကို အမြတ်​တနိုးဖြင့် ပြန်လည်​တင်ပြ​ခြင်း​အနုပညာတစ်ခု​အဖြစ်​​​ဖန်တီး​ဖြစ်​သည်မှာ ကျွန်တော့်အတွက် စိန်ခေါ်မှု​ကြီးမား​လှသော မှတ်တိုင်​တစ်ခုဖြစ်ပါသည်။

Myint San Myint’s paintings are also available from Caphe House in London, from Heriot-Grant Gallery, shipping worldwide.

myint san myint

In touch with reality,  not realism

Saya Myint San Myint last exhibited in Pansodan in January 2012; before that he was part of the portrait show in January 2011. Typically large, with strong colours and many layers, his portraits are a combination of faithfully rendered faces and words which may reflect on or illustrate the subject.

Myint San Myint came to his original painting style slowly. In fact, he first studied physics, and worked as a teacher for eleven years, drawing and painting as a hobby. Eventually he decided to learn more systematically, and now he calls U Thein Han his most important teacher.

When he began to sell his paintings, he painted in a realistic style, as he had been taught, and looked to the market for his subjects of ‘grandfathers and grandmothers’, the typical fare of wrinkly faces served up in the cheap paintings stalls. The pay was not particularly good, and he grew bored of this, and as his family had a silkscreen business, he began experimenting with silkscreen as a medium. Gradually he moved to different media and styles, but he still enjoys working with silkscreen. ‘The silkscreen paintings come into being quickly, in just a few days. The acrylics take a lot more thought and care.’

In 2010 he began a series of paintings of movie stars, combining their portraits with movie poster text.  Less famous subjects include thanakha-wearing women, and a mute neighbour, who is paired with a stringless guitar.

The overall impression continually shifts the observer’s attention around the painting, from nearly obscured deeper layers to pictures seeming to lay on top of them, and around the angles.

‘It is hard to explain the value of art to those who do not already understand it,’ he says, and points out that young people could benefit from more exposure to art. ‘It improves the mind and concentration.’

He would like people to look at more paintings, and suggests that a way to a greater general interest in art is by working more closely with mass media. Now it is common to spend time watching Korean drama serials, he points out, and so people have become interested in various aspects of them. If documentaries about art and artists were shown on tv, the audience would become more and more interested in art, too.

For his part, he is commenting on the mass media, with his shades of advertisements, headlines, and posters. The touch of these immediate familiar elements, which were created for a temporary use brings a certain unsentimental reality to his works. However, one can already imagine how they will look different in the future, as does a ticket found decades later in grandfather’s old coat pocket.



Based on an interview with Nance Cunningham on 1 Jan 11. For more art conversations, click on the ‘art conversation’ tag at the top of this post.

Insert Title Here : 10-15 Dec 2010

Never trapped in the moment. Continually changing and seeking. Continually challenging and redefining. Continually shifting and questioning. We all slip along time into the future, revising our conceptions and refining our perceptions.

This exhibition of contemporary art is an invition to re-interpretation. On display is a selection of paintings and multi-media works to explore — new aesthetics, emerging meanings, new generation — to bring you to diverse vantage points from which to re-evaluate your impressions.

Come to the exhibit and free your mind into the art as the artists have freed their inspiration. Some will reveal meanings, some will confound. You may choose to assign a title — but you may find yourself taking it away again, refining, questioning, seeking.

Featuring thirty artists working in a variety of media, on display from 10 – 15 December 2010, from 10 to 18:00 at Pansodan Gallery, No. 286 Pansodan Street, upper block, Yangon