San Minn; Surrealist satirising society having survived through an era of censorship in Myanmar


Written by Maki Itasaka, Translated by AURA Art

Bold yet delicate, aggressive yet modest. San Minn is an artist oozing such conflicts and gloominess of the same origin.

Key player of the modern art movement in Myanmar

From the late 1970s to the late 2000s, the Myanmar art scene experienced a gloomy time. During the growing democratization movement, censorship by the military administration became more severe, and many artists were sent in prison.

In this dark age, two art groups played a role in the development of modern art in Myanmar.

One is the art group “Gangaw Village” established in 1979 by students and former members of the art club of the University of Yangon. Starting with modern art, they challenged various experimental attempts such as installation art and performance art and laid the foundation for contemporary art in Myanmar.

The other is the “Inya Gallery of Art” founded in 1989. Although it is called a gallery, it does not trade painting, so it is rather a workshop, which provided opportunities for censored out modern artists to express themselves back then.

San Minn was a key player in founding these two important groups.

Imprisoned in the U Thant crisis

Born in 1951, San Minn started painting when he was a boy. His school had an art class twice a week although most schools in Myanmar still does not teach arts.

“I was lucky to know painting,” says San Minn making deep smile wrinkles, “and to know teachers including Lun Gywe, who later succeeded as an impressionist painter of Myanmar.”

He majored in biology at the University of Yangon and was a representative of the art club. After graduating in 1974, he worked for a government job, but went to work only seven days due to the “U Thant crisis*1”. San Minn was arrested for leading protests by art. He served three years and a month in Insein Prison. This experience later led to the “Prison Series”.

*1: The U Thant crisis is a series of protests and riots by student activists triggered by the death of U Thant, who served as a Secretary-General of the United Nations, over the Military government’s refusal to give him a state funeral.

  • In Isolation (2018)

  • The Tught Place (2017)
    84 x 84 cm

A glimpse of the international art scene in second-hand magazines

His style in the 1970s changed from Seurat-inspired pointillism to cubism then surrealism, so drastically as his life did. He merrily explained those days with a soft voice:

“Most western books and magazines didn’t come into Myanmar, and we didn’t have the internet neither. So, I desperately tried to hunt western magazines which embassy staff left in second-hand bookstores so that I could take a glimpse of the international art scene.”

Since the beginning of the 2000s, he has chosen the style we see today, the surrealistic style using acrylic paint, and he later experimented installation art and performance art too. His style changed over some decades, but he has consistently satirised society and politics with his creations.

A great artist in Myanmar, Aung Myint said in our interview before, “speaking of political art, you can’t miss San Minn” repeatedly. He also said, “if you want to talk about Myanmar’s modern art history, you should meet San Minn” and arranged an appointment for us by himself.

  • Double Face (1999)
    122 x 92 cm

  • Old and New (2019)
    91 x 91 cm

Censorship as an element of art

In addition to the Prison Series mentioned above, San Minn’s representative works include Animal Head Series and Gun Series.

One of his famous works is “Age of Full Bloom”, which he painted soon after being released from prison. In the painting, a woman is wearing clothes associated with the Burmese flag of those days, and her head is replaced with a bouquet of blooming roses. The painting is a collection of the National Gallery Singapore, and what made it famous are several disqualified stamps marked by a censor on the canvas. Ironically, this “damage” is now of great value. The censor unintentionally contributed to the valuable completion of this painting as performance art.

In “Competition”, a collection of Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, some animal-headed player such as lizard- or gorilla-headed ones are playing football. It is his irony to human society in which football players are sold and bought at a high price the same as rare animals.

  • Photo of a publication on “San Minn: 12th One Man Show” in 2015 showing "Age of Full Bloom" (1979), 89 x 59 cm.
    This piece is a collection of the National Gallery Singapore. At least six censorship stamps can be seen right of the bouquet and other places.

  • Photo of a publication showing "Competition" (2003), 178 x 117 cm.
    The work is a collection of the Fukuoka Asian Museum of Art.

Initiation of installation art of Myanmar

Another work which made him famous is “Food-Stall”. At his solo exhibition in 1983, San Minn displayed the painting of a downtown food stall in the gallery and felt that something was missing. Then, he provided seats representing a stall in front of the painting and even served foods to the people coming to see the painting.

As a result, this work became installation art where the artist and the visitors interacted with each other. The idea of installation art had not been introduced in Myanmar at that time as the country was in a state close to national isolation. Therefore, it became one of the first installation artworks in Myanmar.

His atelier in a hustle and bustle downtown

San Minn has been living and working for more than 20 years in his apartment in a densely populated downtown, and he has energetically worked in the small atelier in his apartment where you hear the echo of car horns and cargo workers. For storing a growing number of his works, he rents another house in a suburb. 

“I just can’t leave the downtown where I’ve been living for more than 20 years,” he says simply, but the place may be best for him to artistically satirise society and politics from ordinal people’s point of view.

  • San Minn; Artist staying with ordinal people and observing society

Editor: Maki Itasaka