Illuminated, protected and nurtured art in the dark era – Inya gallery


Written by Maki Itasaka, Translated by AURA Art

There are are many who are no strangers to, and somewhat interested in, Myanmar art at the Inya gallery. This is a legendary gallery presided over by the famous artist Aung Myint and who pursued freedom of expression even under military rule, when freedom was severely restricted.

This gallery, which brilliantly leaves its name in history, the writer, (myself) thought that it did not even exist, because there was no mention of it on the gallery listings in local magazines, and I had never heard of anyone say they had a solo exhibition there. However, during an interview with an artist who grew up in the area, I came to know that the Inya gallery is still in existence now.

Established in 1988 during the democratization movement

From the establishment of a military dictatorship in 1962 until 2012, just a few years ago, the art scene in Myanmar had endured a long, dark era spanning half a century. When exhibiting artists' works in a gallery, they had to undergo repeated censorship by the police and other government agencies, and many of the works were refused permission to be exhibited. Moreover, artists were jailed one after another for criticizing politics.

In March 1988, a student demonstration clashed with security forces, and a student was killed. On the 8th August, further large-scale democratization demonstrations broke out, and the armed forces that tried to suppress them killed a large number of civilians. On the 26th August, Aung San Suu Kyi, an unknown politician at the time, made a historic speech and suddenly became a symbolic presence of democratization. At the end of 1988, when the democratization movement became successful and made history, the Inya Gallery was born.

Open for only two hours a day

  • Now Aung Myint, a leading figure in the Myanmar art world

  • The Inya Gallery is more a home than a gallery.

At that time, Aung Myint, who was already renowned as a standard bearer of modern art and was at the center of the Myanmar art world, opened a bamboo garage to artists at home in his garden near Inya Lake. This was the beginning of the Inya Gallery.

"The galleries that were open to the public could not escape censorship, but they could express themselves freely without censorship in a closed and private area," Aung Myint reminisces. "At that time, many of my fellow's works, including my own, were blocked by censorship and lost their place in galleries. I had the earnest thought that if things continued like this, modern art in Myanmar would  eventually die out".

Even if it was called a gallery, people did not buy or sell paintings there, so, it was more like a workshop. It was open for only two hours every night, and various artists gathered to hold exhibitions, performances, and discussions. It had nothing to do with financial gain, but it led to free creation without censorship.

In addition, Aung Myint, San Minn and MPP Yei Myint played a central role in these creative activities. Many young artists gathered, including Aye Ko who later appeared as a brilliant performance artist. He sometimes collaborated with artists who came enthusiastically from abroad, and says that there was so much to gain for the Myanmar artists who were in an environment isolated from the world's art scenes.

Bamboo garage that no longer exists

  • Small sign at the alley entrance

  • Bright alley leading to the Inya Gallery

One day in 2018, I visited the Inya gallery for the first time in the intense scorching heat around which I felt around my neck from the light reflecting from asphalt. A little sign stood at the entrance of a street, as I followed the path of a curling residential street. The sign said "Inya gallery". Behind that, an iron gate could be seen covered with pink-flowered bougainvillea.

The gate was locked, and when the bell was pressed, an elderly gentleman came out and opened it. He was said to be a relative of Aung Myint. I became confused as I stepped into the air-conditioned room- it was just a normal house. The "Inya gallery" sign is said to have been moved a few years ago from the house where the bamboo garage used to be in Aung Myint's home and studio.

The abolition of censorship and Aung Myint's tendency to get sick, means he is now rarely active at the gallery. Does this mean the legendary gallery has disappeared again? If the Inya gallery was the only place in Yangon where free artistic expression was possible, then Yangon, now without censorship, would like to think that the whole of its city has become an Inya gallery.

Will the explosive heat of art, which once filled the humid bamboo garage full of mosquitoes flying about, really now cover the whole city of Yangon?

Editor: Maki Itasaka