It was a swell, elegant party, a swirl of nostalgia even on the cutting edge of the future. Yangon’s River Gallery is 10 years old. It celebrated the occasion with a party on February 20 that brought together some of the country’s most storied artists, amid their works. The exhibition assembled to mark the anniversary will run through March 6.
More than 50 new pieces are on display, mostly paintings, but also including two installation artworks. They range from intriguing to outstanding, and repay a quantity of profound ncontemplation.
The owner of the gallery, Gill Pattison, said, “Mostly, I’m astonished. I think to myself, ‘How did that happen?’ When I first started the gallery I didn’t know it would last 10 months, let alone 10 years.
“I feel very lucky to have been able to run a gallery in Yangon during these years, and work with such a talented bunch. Many of the artists whose work I show today started out with me 10 years ago, so we are old friends. I’m glad to have shared the journey with them and been able to expose their work to a larger audience.”
The gallery on its birthday was filled with friends, artists and audience members who love art. Even the introduction of the artists responsible for the paintings on the walls was a kind of work of performance art in itself.
First came the sound of a bicycle bell, then entered the trishaws, each trishaw artist sitting and waving with a big smile as Pattison announced their names amid much merriment.
Front and centre stood Pattison herself, happy and proud.
“My most treasured moments have been when I’ve seen our artists getting recognised in the wider world – winning competitions, having shows abroad, becoming well-known here in Myanmar. The artists are the one we should salute – even through the darkest days, they keep on creating works of tranquil beauty.”
Those who knew no better might have been surprised to find that Myanmar can boast so many talented artists producing such high-quality work. This is the culmination of Pattison’s effort and experience over the years.
“It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. The censorship regime was bothersome for artists, as they had to be very careful in their choice of subject. But many of the artists did manage to insert subtle political messages in their paintings, which they would explain to me, and I could in turn convey to the people
interested in the paintings. Knowing that people from abroad understood their plight made them feel less alone.”
The first River Gallery at The Strand Hotel opened in November 2005 and the second, in October 2013, in the Chindwin Chambers, right next door.
Pattison spoke of her experience in working with local artists, crediting Myanmar artists as being easy to work with and dependable. With no public support for the visual arts, she has found the local artists to be both resourceful and resilient in the face of setbacks. They also know opportunity when they see it.
“When I first started the gallery, they showed touching faith in me, handing over their best work to display in the gallery,” she said.
“Because the art education opportunities here are limited, I want to see what I can do to expand artists’ options for further training and exposure to the global art scene. Over time, I’m sure the country will develop an art ecosystem, but in the interim we have to do what we can with what we have.”
Artist Zaw Zaw Co said, “I’ve been working with River Gallery for nearly four years. It’s really pleasant to work with Gill, and together we can show what we want to draw, not only in Myanmar, but also overseas.
“This exhibition is quite special for us because the artworks we create for the exhibition are different from what we usually create. So we have more fun,” he added.
Khin Zaw Latt said, “I’ve been working with Gill since the beginning of River Gallery. It was the gallery that made me a professional.
“The special thing about this exhibition is that it makes us create something out of the ordinary. Usually you can tell at a glance who painted what, but now you have to check the nameplate.
“River Gallery didn’t discriminate among artists based on their experience, age or success,” he said. “They were always looking for something extraordinary.”