A World where Myanmar and the United States Make Collages – Oliver Kolay, a Painter who Returned to his Homeland

Oliver Kolay

Written by Yuki Kitazumi, Translated by AURA Art

"I've been to Okinawa too because I've been in the U.S. Air Force for twenty-one years." At a solo exhibition held at Yangon's gallery, Oliver Kolay said with a gentle gaze from amongst his shaggy hair. The young artist who crossed the ocean to learn art, lived in the United States as an immigrant, and returned to Yangon after thirty years.

Learning in Burma in the Socialist era and Learning in the United States

66-year-old, Kolay learned painting in the 1970s during the reign of Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma, which at the time was led by President Ne Win. The Ne Win government, which tried to follow its own path through Burmese socialism, excluded foreign capital investment and promoted the nationalization of businesses. As a result, people's lives grew increasingly impoverished. "The nationalization of companies made them all poor", Kolay reminiscences. "We didn't even have any canvases, so we sourced cloth and made them themselves."

He learned painting at the National School of Art in Yangon, and says, "Even if I learned it, it was very elementary." At that time, censorship was also strict, and some artists were imprisoned during this period. He went to the United States in 1985 to pave the way for San Francisco's art school, hoping that he would withstand the suffocation of this era and learn more free art.

  • Mr. Kolay went to the United States to learn painting.

For Kolay, who had previously painted realistic paintings, the art he saw in the United States was so free in many ways. He managed to escape from what bound him and tried to come up with his own way of expressing himself. Several years after traveling to the United States, he made a collage of various colors on a canvas and created a technique to let the expressions that nature creates flow. He then abandoned realism.

  • 'Art Zone' solo exhibition by Mr. Kolay.

Unique Collage Created in a Free Country

He does not talk much about his painting method, but he does not use a paint brush, and it is said that he paints using his own tools. At his solo exhibition held in November at Yangon's gallery 'Art Zone', there were two main techniques. One was a series of work that looked like the randomly dumping of various colors of oil paints on a canvas. In the work named 'Turbulence', many colors such as red and orange swirl in a black space. Even with the same technique, the impression varies depending on the work, and the curves woven by nature look like a spirit that sometimes floats in a void, like a flash of light instantly forming a mysterious space.

  • 'Turbulence', 76cm x 92cm (30 inches wide x 36 inches high)

Another method of his painting is to arrange cloth and strings on the canvas in addition to the techniques described above. In addition to the works of four pieces unified by red, blue, etc., there were also works of three-dimensional expression in which cloth and strings stand out in a mixture of many colors. Some cloths were chopped thinly, as if they were roughly cut and stacked. He is also particular about the materials he uses, and he says that he uses things that are only available in the United States.

  • Mr. Kolay's technique of placing cloth and strings on a canvas is characteristic of his work.

All the More Hope for Knowing the Art World of Myanmar and the United States

Kolay had to spend 21 years in the U.S. Air Force until 2011, because otherwise he would have needed to live in the United States as a 'migrant', and so after his long service, he was then naturalized in the U.S. as a U.S citizen. Among his experience, the idea that his main occupation is painting remains unchanged, and he continues his creative activities, holding exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles as well.

  • A 92cm x 122cm extra-large work consists of four parts: red, blue, orange, and yellow.

  • The three-dimensional work produced by the material on the canvas is powerful.

Oliver Kolay, who has struggled in two countries, does not unilaterally praise the United States. Although the United States was free, the barrier of commercialism prevailed on artists. Galleries and vendors suck up much of the profit of artist sales, leaving artists with only a small amount of money, and forcing them to live hard lives.

In 2016, Kolay returned to Yangon to take care of his sick mother. In addition to his creative activities, he is also engaged in volunteer activities where he teaches English to children. He evaluates the current art world in Myanmar as follows: “The number of galleries is increasing, and art is becoming more popular.” On the other hand, he also points out that it is still an immature market. For this reason, Kolay also creates small-sized pieces so even young Myanmar people can easily purchase his work.

Mr. Kolay continues to speak of his thoughts on art with a smile and in a soft tone that does not make him seem like a veteran. "I've been an artist for my entire life. My passion doesn't wane." He has survived a tough world in two countries, which is especially why he feels hope for the changing art world in Myanmar today.

  • Oliver Kolay, who worked in Myanmar and the United States

Editor: Yuki Kitazumi