Light on ‘Darkness’ in Myanmar−Nathalie Johnston, Founder of the Gallery ‘Myanm/art’


Written by Yuki Kitazumi, Translated by AURA Art

Nathalie Johnston- setting up unique exhibitions.

Among the dozens of galleries in downtown Yangon, the most prominent one is 'Myanm/art'. The founder of the gallery, Nathalie Johnston, bravely moved to Myanmar alone and succeeded in the art business, even though she was an American. With her own unique sense of beauty that is not limited to the popular artists, she strives to discover young and upcoming artists in Myanmar.

Growing up in China Surrounded by Asian Culture

Johnston's background is unique, as she understands Asian tastes, even though she is a true-born American. As a young girl, she lived in Beijing with her father, who worked as a bank clerk, China in the 1980s, when it had just started to reform and began to open up and where the enthusiasm for economic growth started to increase. "Since childhood, I have been surrounded by goods from Asia, so Asian art has always been familiar to me", she reflected. In 1997, she was brought to Myanmar by her mother who was a radio-free Asia (RFA) reporter. For a 12-year-old girl who visited a tropical country for the first time, her memories were vivid, saying that she "Wanted to come back to this country someday."

After studying art at a US university, she learned South East Asian art at the Sotheby's Institute of Art in Singapore. In 2009, she visited Yangon to carry out some research for a paper. At that time, she became acquainted with performance art festival, 'Beyond Pressure' and the artists from the New Zero Art Space, and touched on their passion. After that, she continued to develop her strong feelings towards Myanmar while working in Taiwan and China.

  • Nathalie Johnston, who launched Myanm/art.

A turning point came at the time of Myanmar's transition to civilian rule in 2011. President Thein Sein, from the military, nodded his head at reform, unlike the expectations from around him. He held talks with Aung San Suu Kyi (now Myanmar's State Counsellor and Union Minister for Foreign Affairs), who was his greatest enemy. He released political prisoners one after another, and held surprise talks with the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to improve relations with western countries. Johnston also moved her base to Myanmar in 2012 where she witnessed the changes taking place. 

At that time, there were very limited ways of examining art in Myanmar - there was little literature, and no systematic investigations were being conducted. Therefore, Johnston attended every possible art event in Yangon, exchanged opinions with artists, continued to write her blog, and occasionally wrote articles for English-language newspapers to showcase the splendor of Myanmar art to the international community. "There are many wonderful artists in Myanmar, but they were hardly known in the international community", she reminisces.

As she continued these steady investigative activities, Ivan Pun, a son of one of Myanmar's conglomerates, 'SPA Group', held an art space called 'TS1'. Myanmar's bold effort was to turn the entire building of the warehouse at the Yangon harbor into an art museum, and she was to act as a curator there. "It was such a luxurious space to wonder what kind of artist to bring there", she recalls. However, the unique approach to create an art space in a harbor, which is a common space that blends into the town, came to a deadlock in a few months in response to criticism from government officials.

Johnston, who returned to being an ordinary curator, was determined to have her own gallery while building a database of art, and launched 'Myanm/art' in downtown Yangon, a gallery that finally opened in 2016. Eventually, she had a space where she could display the artwork she wanted.

"Just Begun" Contemporary Art

  • A solo exhibition, 'Ashes of Time' by Kaung Su, depicting the future of civilization in a pessimistic way.

  • Myanm/art, a gallery located in downtown Yangon.

According to Johnston, Myanmar's classical art and modern art from the 1920s to the 50s have now been internationally recognized, and are being exhibited in international auctions such as Sotheby's. On the other hand, as for contemporary art, she says, "Although there are some artists who can earn money, they are still in the early stages."

What 'Myanm/art' deals with is this kind of contemporary art. In addition to veteran artists such as abstract painter Aung Myint, she introduces many works by young and unknown artists. A representative one is early twenties' painter, Bart Was Not Here's exhibition, 'God Complex'. Strongly influenced by foreign comic books, he was an artist who painted powerful and mysterious paintings with strong illustration colors and a powerful amount of irony. "Six of the seven works on display were sold", Johnston remarked, and there was a reaction that surprised her. 
"In the future, I want to introduce young but talented artists like him who have never had a solo exhibitions before," she says. In solo exhibitions, most of the works are specially produced. In some cases, Johnston proposes the theme for a solo exhibition.

Where Myanm/art exhibits its own color is that there are many works that contain poison. "Many of Myanmar's galleries are tourist-oriented", Johnston notes. Beautiful pagodas, modest priests, and colorfully dressed ordinary folk... "Surely it is beautiful. But there is no depth in depicting only 'beautiful Burma'. I prefer a deeper darkness." Kaung Su's solo exhibition, 'Ashes of Time', held in the fall of 2019, also featured dark works based on charcoal depicting the dark future of mankind.

  • "I prefer darkness",- Nathalie Johnston.

Johnston's taste is becoming accepted by the people of Myanmar as well. Most visitors to her gallery are now mainly young Myanmars. "Today, 70% of visitors are from Myanmar, but the buyers are the rich from abroad." Certainly, young Myanmar people are not be able to afford art in the gallery. However, "These generations will surely be good enthusiasts in the future", Johnston says. Yangon's unusual gallery looks ahead to the art world ten years from now, and is still looking for new and talented individuals today.

Editor: Yuki Kitazumi