Gill Pattison paints a picture of Yangon's art world
Excerpted from To Myanmar With Love: A Travel Guide for the Connoisseur, available from ThingsAsian Press.
Stretching my neck back, I looked up to locate the ninth floor of an old Yangon building that housed a talented artist I had been looking for. It was hot, and I could feel the sweat dripping down my spine. "You don't have to come up," I told Samuel, my driver.
"You never know what we'll see up there," he laughed, climbing up the betel-nut-juice-splattered stairway.
I trailed behind, wondering-as I had more than once-why I thought that opening an art gallery in Yangon would be a good idea, and why so many artists lived on the top floors of decrepit buildings.
Tracking down Myanmar's best artists took me to corners of the city I would never have seen otherwise and offered me a glimpse into the lives of ordinary folk-the ones I visited just happened to have extraordinary creative talent. The trek was not always rewarding. Sometimes the artwork turned out to be slapdash and derivative. But this day, which began with an ascent to Zaw Zaw Aung's studio, has since stuck in my memory as the one with surprise treasures at every stop.
After passing seventeen doorways with collections of flip-flops outside, we finally reached Zaw Zaw Aung's apartment. Opening the door with a sympathetic smile, he revealed a high-ceilinged studio, packed full of paintings in various stages of completion. There was also a dusty collection of antiquities from Myanmar, his other passion.
Zaw Zaw Aung painted monks, and although all of Myanmar's artists can paint monks, these were unlike any I had seen before. For a start, he sometimes depicted the front view, a rarity in local art. Beautiful, watchful faces, with eyes that regarded you calmly, if somewhat skeptically. He placed the photorealistic religious figures in bright-yellow pointillist fields, giving the paintings an edgy, contemporary feel. I knew I wanted these wonders for my gallery, and we quickly worked out the deal. But I could not tarry. That morning I had three other artists I wanted to see.
Next stop was Kyee Myintt Saw, who lived near the Yangon River. Directions to his place had included an olfactory element: "Turn left when you smell the fish market." Soon Samuel and I were peering through wire netting windows into tiny houses adjoining the market, scanning for any evidence of a painter's craft. Outside one house, an elderly gent, as thin and wrinkled as a dried tobacco leaf, hailed us. It was Kyee Myintt Saw himself. He led us to his home and studio, where two large canvases on easels dominated the small room. One was a vibrant market scene bursting with life and color. To achieve a textured effect, he applied the finishing touches to the impasto with a hair comb.
Apart from his masterly brushwork, Kyee Myintt Saw's special talent is conveying the quality of light and shade over scenes of everyday life. He told me he was working on a series about the night market as well, and with a flourish he produced a finished work from the back room. Just as he was pulling off the protective paper, someone on the street outside passed by the house with a laden trolley, and a powerful whiff of fish filled the room. Even now, I swear that I smell fish each time I look at one of his stunning paintings.
From the fish market, we headed to the northern suburbs to find Zaw Win Pe. The roads became progressively worse until they were nothing more than rutted paths. Zaw Win Pe was waiting for us outside his house, but I hardly registered his smile and greeting. I was transfixed by the huge painting on an easel beside him, a piece that seemed to glow and shimmer in the sun. It was a semi-abstract landscape of hills and fields, painted with a broad palette of intense colors. Painting with a knife, he built up textured layers, which gave the work a startling clarity and depth. I could envision these blasts of color on the walls of the new gallery, and we quickly agreed on three paintings that I could take to start.
My final find of the day was to meet Ma Nann Nann, a female artist whose cool, elegant creations in black and gold pay homage to her deeply felt Buddhism. She lived in a small housing development a few kilometers north of the city. We got lost several times in the maze of look-alike lanes but finally located the house number. After climbing yet more stairs, we were welcomed into her flat. We contemplated the tranquil beauty of her paintings while she tended to her new baby.
Although an accomplished figurative artist, Ma Nann Nann's current work is largely abstract. With her use of gold leaf squares and a white crescent representing her meditation seat, she references the devotional aspects of Buddhism. While the inspiration for the works is very specific to Myanmar, I reckoned that the sophisticated style would strike a chord with the visitors to my gallery.
This is how I spend many days in my efforts to track down the country's best contemporary artists. Other trips take me farther afield to Mandalay and Mingun, where I have fond memories of negotiating with one artist-along with eight puppies-in the shade of the giant cracked pagoda. The journey to find the artists and learn something of their hopes and dreams has proved just as satisfying as showing the art to an appreciative audience. If you too want to see their work, you can climb up to the studios, slosh through the fish markets, and get lost behind the teashops. Or you can view the results of such adventures at the River Gallery, all under one roof.
The Strand Hotel Annex
92 Strand Rd.
(+95-1) 243-377/8/9, ext. 1821
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Published on 2/6/09