The current view of Burma (Myanmar), and the role of Aung San Suu Kyi, is very much seen through the lens of the current Rohingya crisis and the seemingly inept reaction of the “Government". These events are only a small part of the whole story, and whilst shocking, they are reported (in the western press) in isolation and without the important context of the complicated, and often violent, history. This is a country slowly emerging from 60 years of oppressive military rule and to expect a transition from junta to full democracy without complications is simply naive. But, as is often the case, it is artists who best document both the issues and, where appropriate, the progress and it is this that sparked our interest in the contemporary art scene.
If one considers the rigid, suffocating and oppressive environment in which any form of artistic expression has had to contend with, then the breadth, originality and variety of the contemporary art scene in Burma is a marvel to behold. There were very few terms of artistic reference for the leading protagonists to utilise and the widely available resources and influences, which western artists take for granted, were simply not available to a majority of the leading players in Burma over the past 50 years. In fact many of them were incarcerated for their views and efforts. This simply adds new levels of interest, intrigue and surprise at what has been produced over the years and continues to emerge today. So many of these artists have developed out of a cultural vacuum, have had to invent their own artistic language and have often taken huge personal risks in order to produce work. These three elements, in our view, makes the need to spread the word and present these artists and their work to a wider audience vital. In doing so it will reward them for their bravery and perseverance as well as allow for a better informed discussion about this extraordinary but conflicted country and its wonderful people.
The contemporary art market in Burma
The market in Burma is still dominated by the state supported “Traditional” artwork which is based on the cultural ideology of the days of the Generals with a heavy dose of Buddha iconography. Cronyism remains rife so a lot of terribly executed but politically acceptable art commands undeservedly high prices. But dig a little deeper and one finds an active but fragmented contemporary art scene. Over the last few years, really since 2011, a number of galleries, co-operatives, artistic communes and “open spaces” have been established. A number of the older artists have become mentors and teachers to a younger generation and there is now a sufficient body of work that specific genres and movements are being identified. Performance art is particularly strong in Burma as this was often the easiest, cheapest and least traceable form of protest art.
Single artist and joint exhibitions at galleries and collective shows at the open spaces and co-operatives have encouraged a broad range of styles and subject matter and the choice of artwork available has increased dramatically over the last 5 years. International interest is increasing but it remains concentrated in the East. There have been exhibitions of the leading artists in Japan, Korea, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand; Canada and the US have hosted exhibitions. In Europe, Italy and Germany are leading the charge with a number of initiatives supported by NGOs hosting exhibitions in Rome, Milan and Frankfurt. In the UK, however, exposure has been feeble which is odd given the historic connections. Perhaps guilt has a part to pay in which case there is even more reason to address this inconsistency.
Oddly, JFK inadvertently summed it up the situation rather well when he said “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him… We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth”.
We believe there are huge opportunities to present new, exciting and interesting artwork with a different and important story to tell and at prices that are acceptable to a broad audience.