Overview: History of Contemporary Art in Myanmar

Written by Kazue Suzuki, Yuto Yabumoto, Supported by Aung Myat Htay, Translated by AURA Art

Myanmar has a long tradition of traditional art, but due to the influence of prolonged military government, its art activities have been constrained for a long time, and it must be said that the recognition of contemporary art in society is not high. In Myanmar, the most common art that can be easily seen is a modernistic painting of the daily lives and scenery of monks and local people, and national schools of art are encouraged to do so.

Myanmar, which achieved independence from the British colonies in 1948 and introduced parliamentary democracy for a period of time, established the National School of Art (Yangon and Mandalay) and the National Museum of Art in 1952, gradually improving the art environment. However, parliamentary democracy did not last long, and as a result of instability caused by ethnic minority issues and power struggles among Myanmarese politicians, the national army led by General Ne Win carried out a military coup d’etat in 1962, and the Ne Win’s dictatorship system that continued until the 1988 democratization movement began. The military government advocated the realization of "Burmese-style socialism" and aimed at nationalization of economic activities and establishment of a one-party rule system in politics. However, the military government continued misgovernment and the economy declined.

What was formed during this period was Gangaw Village, an art group that played an important role in the development of contemporary art in Myanmar. The group was formed in 1979 with the Gangaw Village exhibition, led by about 20 students who were voluntarily studying art rather than majoring in art at the Rangoon University of Liberal Arts (now the University of Yangon). Early members included Aung Myint and Po Po, who later became internationally known artists, and they mainly produced abstract paintings at that time. Aung Myint was a leading figure who laid the foundation for the contemporary art of Myanmar today, learned art on his own, and at the beginning of his activities, he was creating paintings strongly influenced by abstract expressionism. After that, he expanded his field of practice to installation and performance art. Po Po also learned contemporary art on his own and expanded from painting to sculpture and installation, becoming an internationally known artist.

  • Aung Myint

  • Aung Myint provided his home garage to many artists and co-founded “The Inya Gallery of Art” .

These movements, such as the formation of groups, seemed to create a current of modern art, but from around the time of the 1988 Democratization Movement (the 8888 Democratization Movement), they entered a period when freedom was constrained for the art community. The democratization movement was ultimately suppressed by a military coup d'etat, but this led to the collapse of the socialist regime that lasted 26 years. Since 1989, the military regime has been aiming economically for a market economy, and has been receiving foreign products, people, and information. Accordingly, hotels with galleries for foreigners have begun to be built, and many landscape paintings have begun to appear.

On the other hand, partly because university students had played the leading role in the independence movement and anti-government movement, art centers based in universities were closed around the time of the democratization movement, and the time of the Rangoon University of Education and Science was also reduced. The censorship was strengthened, and art exhibitions were also regulated. Artists began to start up galleries and groups in search of a place for presentations outside of the universities. Today one of the internationally active artists, Aye Ko, established Modern Art 90 in 1990 with 15 Myanmar artists, and subsequently renamed it the New Zero Art Group in 2000 and the New Zero Art Space in 2008. The company operates space with ongoing display space, artist studios, and residential functions, and focuses on providing presentation venues and teaching the next generation.

  • Aye Ko

  • A scene of art class at the New Zero Art Space

Although some of the frontline artists, including Aye Ko, had been imprisoned, contemporary art was not recognized as art in Myanmar under the military regime, and severe censorship of artistic expressions took place. The artists struggled to escape from it and searched for new ways of expression and means to express themselves and resist oppression in the constraints. On the other hand, performance activities that can escape from censorship came to be carried out because the work did not remain as a substance. Performance art became more active after the 1996 Shimoda Seiji (NIPAF) came to Myanmar. In 2008, Moe Satt who is also well known in Japan launched a performance art festival "Beyond Pressure International Performance Art Festival". Even today, many artists are expanding their fields of activity abroad as performance and art artists.

  • Zero Platform 2: International Performance Art Festival, 2018

  • Girl Power "Woman Now" Performance Art Show, 2019

In the 2015 general election, which attracted attention from all over the world, the NLD (National League for Democracy), led by Aung San Suu Kyi, won, lifting economic sanctions from Western countries, this brought a major change in Myanmar's society. In the field of contemporary art as well, surveys by researchers and curators from abroad have begun to flourish. In 2013, the Myanmar Art Resource Centre and Archive (MARCA) was established by artists  Khin Zaw Latt and Zon Zapal Phyu, and researcher Nathalie Johnston. It is a bilingual art resource center and is now located within the art space "Myanm/art" established in 2016. They play an important role in the development of contemporary art in Myanmar by collecting and translating materials, holding symposiums, exhibitions, etc., and focusing on giving young artists a place to present their works.

  • Myanm/art

After the opening of the country to the world, Myanmar's economy was brought to the foreigners' attention as the last frontier in Southeast Asia. However, contemporary art has also begun to attract attention in the context of international contemporary art. Young artists who were born after the 8888 democratization movement have less political pressure than their predecessors, and many of them are taking advantage of their digital native character to create photos, video arts, and other works that are easy to publish on the Internet, and to try to challenge the world stage. We would like to look forward to the future of the artists who seek to establish identities that are different from those of previous generations.