Myanmar Art Italy 2016 is the portrait of a country that begins to find its place in the landscape of contemporary art, actively negotiating its identity in the new global order it has recently entered; It’s also an exhibition to meditate on relativity, identity and culture in contemporary art.
TEXT & IMAGES : Miriam Bertolini
Milan has been hosting the first collective exhibition of Burmese contemporary artists in Italy,showcasing paintings by Aung Myint, Aung Sint, Chan Nyein Kyaw, Khin Maung Zaw, Khin Zaw Latt, Kyaw Nyo, Myint Naing, Mon Thet, Saw Moe Zaw and Tin Maung Oo. However small the exhibition, it finds its way within the general debate on the features and role of contemporary art in Myanmar, offering a serious motive of reflection on important topics.
The international standards set for contemporary art often push for innovation and originality, and have been clashing in Myanmar with a very different conceptual idea of art. The exhibition itself doesn’t offer any help in deciphering the essence of these paintings, leaving the viewer with the feeling of having seen beautiful but descriptive artworks, with no multilayered meaning embedded. However, when approaching Burmese art, there are some cultural and circumstantial elements that have to be taken into account to better understand it, since they shape the search of Burmese contemporary art’s idiom in a framework that the western world may consider too conventional, if not traditional.
Three elements are central in understanding the position of Burmese contemporary artists: censorship, identity and relativity.
First of all, historically, political uncertainty has stalled the use of experimental languages in art for decades; a long-term effect of living under a prolonged authoritarian regime is that the end of censorship often does not automatically mean “freedom of expression”; rather, it marks a shift to “safety of expression”, far from total sovereignty of the artist on his contents. Representing even moderately harsh criticisms, however hidden or veiled, is still dangerous.
Secondly, most artistic productions are rooted in the visual and cultural vocabulary of Myanmar, meaning that aesthetic values, symbolism and contents are not evident to the understanding of a non-Burmese public (especially western). Traditional motifs abound – landscapes, monks, local beauties, daily life scenes, sacred iconographies – and artistic knowledge is frequently passed by from master to disciple. Moreover, Burmese artists don’t commonly use a very diverse range of media, relying mostly on acrylic, oil and watercolor – except for a handful, Htein Lin for instance. Such artworks may be perceived as naïve, even though they honestly represent the soul of a country who is discretely opening up to new perspectives. Nevertheless, there’s no wonder why they possess an exquisite sensitivity, given that Burmese art is traditionally rich, harmonic and complex, detail-oriented but not hyper-realistic, and always delicate in the portrait of human figures – of which Aung Sint and Mon Thet’s paintings are a great example. The latter, in particular, positioned the naturalistic portrait of a woman against a strong polychromatic background – almost expressionist and that is, some have declared, of clear western influence.
Style-wise, those artists who look for non-linear visual idioms tend to focus on dramatic contrasts in color and composition, bringing such propensity into reminiscences of abstractism or constructivism, as in Aung Myint’s Against (winner of the ASEAN Arts Award), or in Chann Nyein Kyaw’s Colour of Space. Tin Maung Oo’s Market Day, particularly, combines a neo-cubist style with inspiration from daily life scenes in a mosaic of colors where human figures stand as the only easily recognizable element. It has to be remembered how colors are charged with cultural and spiritual values inherent to Myanmar, deriving from both Buddhism and popular culture.
These three works exemplify how the country is still looking for an alternative expression to its traditional precepts, more in line with its changing identity.
Last but not least, is the viewer’s identity and cultural standpoint. The lyrical stage of these Burmese paintings may not fit some people’s definition of contemporary art. The reasons are twofold: firstly, it is hard to read between the cultural lines of such country and easy to fall into a narrow-minded exoticism. Secondly and most importantly, descriptivism is often overlooked as “old-fashioned”, since it belongs – in the western ideal of artistic chronological evolution – to the past. This is often what drives the critics to consider Burmese art less sophisticated than their international counterparts, that are often more conceptually elaborated. It would be however interesting to examine the perception and reception of such artwork by the Burmese autochthonous public, especially since the country maintains a cyclical ideal of time and therefore the notion of “evolution” is very different. Besides, few ask themselves what are the image and role of international contemporary art in Myanmar or whether it could fit the taste of its population or artists.
This is where the curatorship of the exhibition introduces the notion of “alter-modern aesthetics”, originally by the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud, as a resolution of the conflict relativity-identity-culture: hypermodernism and globalization require that artists confront the issue of cross-cultural artworks and “translations”, bending identity to their own will and to the presence of an extremely variegate audience. Such process has no clear path or result, and it is rather new for this country. Additionally, traditional subjects, practices and influences are essential and representative of the Burmese artistic identity by choice, and should not be devalued with the justification of lack of inventiveness. Defining one’s own work as “contemporary art” in Myanmar appears to be in itself a cutting-edge statement. It’s a choice of self-determination and self-identification, as well as one of participation in the international order, and, therefore, of integration in its circuits.
Myanmar Art Italy 2016
June 29 – September 12, 2016
National Museum of Science and Technology, Milan
Miriam Bertolini is an Italy-based arts writer and anthropologist specialized in Asian art; currently researching Southeast Asian self-representations of societal and personal identity.