Burma’s contemporary art scene has been emerging from decades of isolation in recent years thanks to some pioneering and experimental artists who have defied government censorship and oppression. Gaining international attention in the midst of social and political upheaval, these artists have set themselves as examples for a younger and even bolder generation. Here we provide our selection of some of the best Burmese contemporary artists still working today.
Po Po (b. 1957, Pathein, Myanmar) is a self-taught artist who has been exhibiting extensively since 1987. His work was part of the Fukuoka and the Yokohama Triennales in Japan, the Singapore Biennale, the Gwangju Bienniale and Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. He was also in exhibitions at the Fukuoka Art Museum in 1999, Saigon Open City and Osage Art Foundation in Singapore in 2010. With Aung Myint, Po Po is a pioneer of performance art in Burma and in 1997 he staged a 30-minute seminal performance piece.
Po Po’s art tackles a variety of themes, including nature, love, self-defence, childhood, sex, Buddhism, logic, history, general truth, the solar system, traducement and politics. His works are provocative, humorous and playful, ironic, sociable and impulsive. He often presents regional and religious identities, and explores global issues through local problematics. One of his most provocative works to date is Scream of the Dead, which arose from a collaboration over 2003 to 2005 with composer Mynt Moe Aung and songwriter Soe Naing. The computer installation presented an open-mass grave and functioned as a metaphor. It has been replicated and handed around as a CD-book. His 2010 installation at Osage in Hong Kong, entitled Rice Terrace, comprised 1000 Styrofoam rice take-away boxes arranged on mud terraces in the gallery and each containing about 100 grams of growing rice.
Husband and wife duo Tun Win Aung (b. 1975, Ywalut, Myanmar) and Wah Nu (b. 1977, Yangon, Myanmar) both graduated from the University of Culture, Yangon, in 1998, Wah Nu with a BA in Music and Tun Win Aung with a BA in Sculpture. After her studies, Wah Nu took up painting and video, while Aung extended his practice to painting, performance, outdoor site-specific installation and multimedia work. The duo works both independently and together. Their collaborative work explores elements of historical and contemporary culture, established custom and innovative practice.
Their approach to their country’s environment, both natural and manmade, is informed by animistic Buddhist beliefs and ecology. In 2009 the artists initiated a multi-component work entitled 1000 Pieces (of White), which was ultimately acquired by the Guggenheim as Four Pieces (of White). For the project, the artists gathered and produced objects and images that would represent a portrait of their life experience as partners and collaborators. The archive is an intersection of private and shared histories, and the transformation of public information into private knowledge. In their latest project, ‘Burma’s Flying Circus,’ the artists worked collectively with Singapore’s Ong Keng Sen and others by creating small-scale exhibition models to mimic what an installation of their artworks in a museum would look like, to highlight the lack of exhibition opportunities to show them.
Moe Satt (b. 1983, Yangon) is a performance artist and he founded Beyond Pressure International Performance Art Festival in his home city. He graduated in 2005 with a BSc in Zoology, but soon turned to art during his studies, when he took up work as a graphic designer and he started enjoying art. His work has been exhibited internationally, including at Para Site, Hong Kong, where he was an artist-in-residence in 2013. Satt has performed both in galleries and in the streets in Yangon and has participated in a variety of performance art events and festivals around Asia and the West.
Satt is part of the new generation of artists from Burma which emerged after 2000 and is less concerned with the political situation of their country, but rather with more conceptual works. In his 2009 performance Face and Fingers (F n’ F), Satt explores the potential for expression and ambiguity in his self-made hand gestures, providing eight of his favorite hand gestures. In an interview with Asia Art Archive in 2009, Satt explains how performance art has evolved in Burma from the early generation of artists concerned with escapology and emotionalism to his generation, which has become more conceptual, calm, simple, concrete and interactive.
Nyein Chan Su (aka NCS) (b. 1973, Yangon) graduated from the State School of Fine Art in 1993. NCS is one of the most prominent contemporary artists in Burma and he is renowned for his politically charged paintings, performances and video installations. He is a co-founder of an artist-run space, Studio Square Art Gallery (2003). He has exhibited extensively around Asia and also in the West, including the 1999 Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, Japan, which launched his career. In 2013, he held a solo exhibition at the Societe Generale Gallery at the Alliance Française of Singapore, curated by Marie-Pierre Mol and Louise Martin of Intersections Gallery, a new gallery in Singapore that aims to bridge cultures through art.
NCS’s works are often concerned with the state of contemporary Burma society, which continues to be controlled and influenced by politics and bureaucracy, referred to as ‘red tape’ by the artist. For his 2013 project in Singapore, NCS was inspired by the concept of the photo album, blending the personal and the political. In the form of movie posters, the black-and-white images of his family and historical events printed on vinyl are a reference to the substitution of hand-painted posters with cheaply printed ones. Referencing the 1970s aesthetics and imagery of the Burma Socialist Program Party, the artist scribbled vintage newspaper headlines in red paint. The project aimed at hope for the country’s future.
Chaw Ei Thein (b. 1969, Yangon) is now based in New York City. She graduated in 1994 with a BA in Law from the Yangon University. Her practice benefited from the mentorship of her own father, Maung Maung Thein, an artist himself, who contributed to the diversification of her artistic practice. She received the Elizabeth J McCormack and Jerome I Aaron fellowship in connection with the Asian Cultural Council in New York, and she has lectured and exhibited extensively in and outside of Myanmar. She participated in the 2008 Singapore Bienniale, 2009 Open Studios Exhibitions, International Studio and Curators Program in New York as well as several performance works together with Htein Lin in Myanmar and at Asia House, London in 2007. She is also a collector and director of the Sunflower Gallery in Yangon. She is a painter as well as a conceptual and performance artist, and has won numerous international art awards for her work. Thein most often addresses the conflicts and contradictions inherent in her home country’s socio-political environment. Her subtly feminist works are both gracious and candid. In her 2009-2010 installation Bed, including red bell peppers and a mosquito net, Thein explores the universal concept of ‘bed,’ as she explains in an interview with Asia Art Archive. The artwork is not only about women, represented by the red bell peppers, but also about anyone else — men, women, lesbians, gays — and their experience of abuse at different levels. For the Singapore Biennale in 2008, she collaborated with her then companion Richard Streitmatter-Tran on September Sweetness, an installation made of five and a half tons of sugar, which commented on the erosion of hope and how day by day, hope was disappearing dramatically. Thavibu Gallery, Silom, Bang Rak, Bangkok, Thailand
Htein Lin (b. 1963, Mezaligon, Burma) is a painter, performance artist and political activist. In 1985, he started studying Law at the Yangon University, but was expelled three years later due to protesting against the lack of investigation into another student’s death. Lin participated in various protests and withdrew to a camp on the border with India, where from he opposed Burma’s military regime. In 1994, he finished his law degree, but took up art and comic film acting as his careers. He spent six and a half years as a political prisoner in Burma, from 1998 to 2004, but he continued to paint secretly while in prison, using whatever means available to him. His prison works were shown at Asia House London in 2007, in Burma: Inside Out. He has exhibited extensively in Asia and around the world, including the Karin Weber Gallery in Hong Kong, Olson Gallery in the USA, the Chocolate Factory in London, the National Museum in Poznan, Poland and the Venice Biennale in 2007.
Lin’s paintings largely draw on his Theravada Buddhist faith, Burmese symbols and traditions, satirical performances and important events such as Cyclone Nargis and the Saffron Revolution. His performances are more political in nature, commenting on historical events, the regime and the social situation in Burma. In 2005, he performed with fellow artist Chaw Ei Thein Mobile Art Gallery and Mobile Market in downtown Yangon, for which the artists were detained for five days of questioning. During his solo painting show at Lokanat Gallery in Yangon in 2005, Lin performed Standstill, during which he stood in meditation for four hours in sympathy with the disabled and those who are unable to move.
Aung Ko (b. 1980, Htone Bo) studied Fine Art Painting at the University of Culture in Yangon. He has been a full time artist since 2002, and has exhibited at institutional events such as the Singapore Biennale 2008, the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale 2009 and other local and international exhibitions. He was part of the Goethe Institut’s ‘RiverScapes IN FLUX’ project which toured Hanoi, Saigon, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Jakarta and Manila in 2012-2013. In 2013, he was among the Southeast Asian artists featured in Primo Marella’s group exhibition DEEP S.E.A. He works in various media, including painting, pottery, film, performance and installation.
Among his varied work, Ko creates photorealistic paintings, such as those exhibited in the DEEP S.E.A exhibition, entitled We Are Moving, which chronicle a series of bomb blasts that took place during Thingyan (Water Festival) in Yangon, killing nine people and injuring 170. The artist disregards censorship by recording on canvas what photographers at the time were arrested for illegally trying to capture and document. In his conceptual performance H.u.m.m.m…, which he initiated in 2007 by the river Irrawaddy in Thuye’dan, Aung’s native village in northwest Burma, the artist creates both a personal rite of purification and catharsis, and a political metaphor for escape and elevation over political oppression. Involving the local community, Ko carried thirteen wooden staircases and planted them into the river’s sand bed, then set them ablaze. During the hours-long fires, the artist stood chanting.
Aung Myint (b. 1946, Yangon) is a painter and performance artist. He is considered one of the pioneers of performance and experimental art in Burma, rejecting traditional romanticism and stylistic homogeneity in favor of social and political criticism through diversity in style and media. Myint graduated from the Rangoon Art and Science University with a degree in Psychology in 1968. He is a self-taught artist and started exhibiting his paintings as early as the 1960s. He co-founded the Inya Gallery of Art in Yangon. He has exhibited extensively at home and abroad, and his work is part of important institutional collections such as the Singapore Art Museum, the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, the National Art Gallery in Malaysia and various private collections in Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Australia and the USA.
The work Beginning ‘n’ End in 1995 was Aung Myint’s first performance, and signified the artist’s turn to a performance-based practice that allowed him to criticize socio-political issues in his own country. In his painting practice, the seminal series of monochromatic drawings Mother and Child (2002–2008) emphasize gestural forms created with black acrylic lines, which feature a fluidity evoking the intimate physical connections between the two figures. The works reference feelings of loss and abandonment after Myint’s loss of his mother as a child and are a kind of self-portrait based on the universal concept of the maternal relationship. The 2010 World Series: Five Continents Tattered, which depicts the five continents, is a commentary on conflicts and bloodshed and the potential for healing between countries of opposing religions, beliefs and politics.
Aung Myint’s work can be found at: the Singapore Art Museum,71 Bras Basah Road, Singapore 189555, +65 6332 3222; Fukuoka Art Museum, 1-6 Ohori-Koen Park, Chuo-ku, Fukuoka-shi 810-0051 Japan, +81 92-714-6051; and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10128, +1 212 423 3575
Nge Lay (b. 1979, Pyin Oo Lwin) graduated from the National University of Arts and Culture in Yangon with a BFA in 2003 and from the Yangon East University with a BA in Economics. She has shown internationally, including at TransportASIAN at the Singapore Art Museum (2009), her first solo show at Tokyo’s Youkubo Art Space (2011) and the Okinawa Prefecture Art Museum (2012). She was a finalist for the Sovereign Art Prize in 2012 and she participated in the Singapore Biennale 2013.
Her work engages with the exploration of issues regarding education, health and life in underdeveloped areas of Burma. Lay has frequently visited Thuye’dan village in rural Rakhine, where she has been observing and researching local life. Lay has recorded and documented the changes and transformations that are taking place not only in more urbanized areas of the country, but also in rural locations. In Endless Story, she created photo-collaged portraits from the 1930s and 1970s taken in Thuye’dan, which comment on the unresolved relationship between modernity and tradition. By juxtaposing original photographs with collage, the work is suggestive of the changes taking place in the lifestyle of rural Burma.
Aye Ko (b. 1963, Pathein) is part of the post-Modernist wave of artists in Burma and has been active in Yangon’s art scene since 1988. He was trained in traditional and classical painting under master U Min Soe, but soon turned to a more experimental, avant-garde practice and has gained a reputation both at home and internationally for breaking the rules. His transition to performance art took place after his incarceration during student protests in 1988. In confinement and without a canvas, he realised he could use his body to create artworks and express his views. He says, ‘It was the best way to express myself.’
In 1990, he organised Modern Art 90, a group exhibition that in 2000 transformed into the New Zero Art Group, now including 28 artist members and in 2008, he founded the New Zero Art Space. His work has been exhibited internationally, including at the ZKM Karlsruhe, various performance art festivals in Japan, Hong Kong and Macau, New York and Thailand, among others.
Aye Ko’s work is about the assertion of his persona in relationship to a changing society. His early works were mostly site-specific and political, defining him as a citizen of a country under oppression. His recent work engages with the meeting of politics and nature and stimulates the viewer to cross the line into his personal realm. His work condenses references to Burma’s political and economic history, as well as his own, and represents the environment shaped by human action and intervention, such as in his 2011 video Floating Human.