When others went overseas to buy fashion accessories, I preferred to shop for knives, paper and glue,” said Zon Ei Phyu, 28, while using a fine, rounded knife to put the finishing touches on a bridal gown made of yellow paper. It was an invitation card made for her best friend’s wedding.
Whereas other girls carry lipstick and eyeliner in their bag, Zon Ei Phyu keeps the various knives she uses to make her paper art. Her fingers and hands are noticeably marked with scars.
While paper-cut artists are common in other countries, in Myanmar barely ten are known, Zon Ei Phyu among them. This year she has already exhibited in Japan and Malaysia, at the Institute Francais in Yangon, and as the only female contemporary artist represented in “Mirror: Reflecting Society”, a recent show at TS1 gallery. There she presented “The Tree of Dreams”, a paper tree on which viewers were invited to hang paper leaves inscribed with personal messages.
“If you want to make a sculpture, you need to find wood and you need to know how to make a sculpture. Paper you can get any place and any time. If you have a knife and glue – that is good enough for me,” she said.
As a child she liked to use colourful papers to make dolls, rings and necklaces, as well objects in her environment and scenes of events. Her parents’ only daughter, Zon Ei Phyu found that she could pass many happy hours of paper cutting all by herself.
By the time she was 5, she already enjoyed painting. At 11, she won a gold prize at the Fukuoka Child Art Competition in Japan. As a teenager, she took acrylic and water-colour painting lessons from Ma Sandar Khine, an artist who specialises in painting nudes. The student and teacher showed their work together in a group exhibition.
“When I paint, it’s usually about rooms in bright acrylic colours,” Zon Ei Phyu said. “I wanted to be an architect just like my father. That’s why my paintings were so full of lines.”
At that time, however, women weren’t allowed to attend university architectural studies programs. After her matriculation with full distinction, she chose medicine, as per her family’s wishes.
Through her time in university she became disconnected with art, but after four years she was both a doctor and an artist. She chose to pursue the latter profession.
In 2011, she was about to go to Tokyo for a three-month Open Studio residency when she learned through the internet about paper cutting as an art form. She knew then that she wanted to focus her skills on it.
“At that time I was not a professional artist, and I had not graduated from art school like other artists,” she said. “I was worried and scared about representing Myanmar as an artist [in Japan]. But I tried my best and everything was fine.”
By the time the Tokyo residency was over in 2012, she’d learned a lot about innovations in contemporary art around the world. Inspired, she aimed to make her paper-cut pieces fresh and new.
But in Myanmar, she found that other artists were not accepting of her new medium.
“I accept that each nation has its own culture. But if artists aren’t allowed to develop and just stay with the old ways, I’m sure that they face a lack of freedom,” she said. “Also, most people still think that a painting must be a portrait or a landscape in a frame on the wall. I think that old way of thinking must change.”
She decided to make works that could be described as a hybrid between painting and paper cutting. Examples decorate the walls all over her family’s three-storey detached house. Her work desk is in her bedroom and takes up one-third of the space. She spends most of her time here as soon as she’s finished her duties in the family business, she said. Six A3-size cutting mats are attached to the table, which is also covered with various-size knives, scissors, bundles of coloured paper and tubes and bottles of glue. The bedroom shelves are lined with her paper toys.
“Paper-cut art is so fine and easy to destroy, not like acrylic or water-colour paintings, so I’m careful with them,” she said. Becoming philosophical, she added, “It’s the same with the human world – changeable and easy to ruin. And as in nature, everything has a positive and a negative. In paper-cut art, you have the desired cut piece, which can be said to be positive, and the remainder, which is negative. It is the same with the human world – there are good things and bad things.”
With the “opening-up” of the country, she said she thinks the art scene has grown and improved. Yet with the changes, she said she also notices that people seem to have lost their attention to the arts, which have become more direct in their messaging.
Under censorship, she said, “artists were using indirect meanings in their poems and art because of the military government. The indirect or ornate meanings made the audience think and feel.”
Now people don’t use the same effort to read works of art, she said. “They think no more of a painting or poem after they’ve seen it.”
She intends to make art with indirect meaning and interactive elements, similar to the “The Tree of Dreams”, she said.
Now she is finishing wedding invitations for her friend, but in December she will participate in the festival Beyond Pressure, organised by artist Moe Satt. And in February she plans to open her own gallery.
“I faced many difficulties when I decided to create the paper-cut art on my own,” she said. “I want to make a workshop where people can study this art. Sharing is my desire for the future.”