A painter, editor, historian and musician whose creativity paves the way – Pansodan Gallery’s founder, Aung Soe Min


Written by Yuki Kitazumi (Yangon-based journalist), Translated by AURA Art

"Pansodan Street is the gateway to the world" as painter and businessman Mr. Aung Soe Min puts it, Pansodan Street, which runs north and south through downtown Yangon, has been a center of culture since the days of British rule. Even today, there are huge buildings of colonial style, and as you can see from the many bookstores around there, intellectuals such as government officials who governed Rangoon (now Yangon), which was regarded as one of the most fascinating cities in South East Asia, flourished in cultural discussions here. Mr. Aung Soe Min set up a gallery which he named after “Pansodan”.

  • Pansodan Gallery's founder, Mr. Aung Soe Min

Childhood when illustrations were drawn imitating comic books

Aung Soe Min was born in 1970 in Kayaukpadaung near Mandalay, famous for its traditional music. When he was a child, it was comic books that he was obsessed with. He imitated his favorite characters and drew illustrations of them. For Mr. Aung Soe Min, who was not formally educated in painting, the comic books were to him a source of knowledge. As a student who did not have enough money to buy books, Mr. Aung Soe Min, who was fond of reading as well as comic books, began his job as a book-binder. When he advertised his binding services, books arrived from all over town, and he was able to earn money while reading them at random for free.

During his youth, it was a turbulent time for Myanmar. In 1988, many young people committed themselves to creating a new country with a democratic movement. However, their dream was destroyed by their repression by the military government. He does not talk about  this period much, but he also participated in the struggle. As a result, his situation was no longer safe, and his family became scattered.

At the time, qualification majors and occupations were allocated by the state. Whether he liked it or not, he decided to go down the path of becoming an engineer after graduating from a technical school. However, he also worked on editing books which he liked to do as a side business. Then, in 1992, he launched a publishing company, which subsequently became successful.

  • Mr. Aung Soe Min with his work "the dancer" behind.

Innovation in the publishing industry

Mr. Aung Soe Min, who worked in publishing, aimed to reform the structure of book publishing and distribution. First, he adopted the technology of DTP (desktop publishing), which had not been introduced in Myanmar, to improve the efficiency of operations. “Around that time, there were only two PCs which were available for DTP in Yangon,” he reminisced. In addition, the company decided to change the distribution of books that had previously been dependent on rental bookstores with the aim of creating books worth buying. In accordance with the reader's preferences, he also challenged fields that had not often been seen in the past, such as full-fledged novels with profound depth. They also created books in a style that matched the content of each book, regardless of the fixed number of pages or the size required by the book rental store.

However, when DTP, which he introduced earlier, became mainstream in Myanmar, this caused a different problem. Artists and illustrators who drew magazine or novel illustrations were deprived of their jobs by computers and became redundant. They were excellent artists, but as the times changed, they needed to find a new way of being artists. What Mr. Aung Soe Min felt particularly necessary was a place where art could be appreciated by ordinary citizens, so in 2008, he launched the Pansodan Gallery.

“Visiting my gallery” is absolutely fascinating

His friends around him and those in the gallery told Mr. Aung Soe Min, “You can't succeed.” But for him there was a chance of winning. "Myanmar people did not have a place to go and see art," he remembers. The image of the gallery, which had been closed in order to service the air conditioning, was completely changed so that anyone could drop by casually to this new open space. “Both the rich and the poor can enjoy this gallery”, Mr. Aung Soe Min says and he has collected many works of art in different price ranges and styles.

  • Pansodan Gallery, which aims to allow visitors to stop by freely

Soon after launching the gallery, Mr. Aung Soe Min accidentally met an actor who was an acquaintance and a billionaire. "When I told him that I had started a gallery, the acquaintance just quietly replied, 'I am not interested in art'." Mr. Aung Soe Min brought him somewhat unwillingly to the gallery, saying, "Please judge only after you see our paintings." Then the acquaintance stared in surprise at the works of art in the gallery, and on the same day, purchased three paintings. He then became a big client of Pansodan Gallery. The gallery became so popular that in its first year, as many as 1,000 paintings were sold.

Red and black urging self-reflection in Buddhism

"I created a publishing company because I wanted to write a book, and I created a gallery because I wanted to draw pictures, but I'm just working with other people's works," says Mr. Aung Soe Min, who also creates a lot of paintings and sculptures.

What is distinctive is a series of acrylic paintings titled "The Buddhist Crisis" created in 2014-15. Many works are surprisingly and terrifyingly depicted in red and black, with pictures of people's hands traced or men crouching in places like boxes. In 2012, a clash between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists broke out in Rakhine State, leading to nearly 2,000 deaths according to government announcements, mainly in Rohingya. The series of works released by Mr. Aung Soe Min contains a message that the spirit of Buddhism should have been more generous.

  • "Breaking First Thread of 3; Blank and Cell", 2014, Aung Soe Min, Acrylic on canvas, 36" x 48"

He is also a musician. Combining traditional music with contemporary pop, one of his songs was tailored to an up-tempo song with a beat effect. He works on lyrics, composing, and planning events.

What is currently underway is a series of exhibitions called 'Open History.' "The government is trying to overwrite history," he says, holding exhibitions of historical records, such as photographs, books, and art, in local cities. This is an initiative to reconsider history in a creative and multifaceted way, thinking that "any government tries to overwrite history."

  • Mr. Aung Soe Min is collecting historical materials.

An Artist, manager, editor, poet, linguist, journalist, curator, historian, and producer... I asked Mr. Aung Soe Min who has many profiles, "Who are you?". "Well," he answered, "Not at least a businessman." His constant emphasis is on 'creativity.' In retrospect, both his work, his business, and his social activities are very creative. Then I came to a conclusion. That his way of life itself is art.

Editor: Yuki Kitazumi