Yangon's art world is experiencing a renaissance. At times, it may seem overwhelming to keep up with weekly shows and performances as some appear for one night only, without footnotes to explain their role in the country’s art history.
However, Nathalie Johnston, owner of the seven-month old Myanm/art Gallery, helps to fill in the pieces of this explosive scene. Since November, Myanm/art has hosted a variety of art tours in Yangon – a downtown walking tour, uptown driving tour, art collector’s tour, and artist studio visit – tailored to fit the interests of tourists and Yangon residents curious about Myanmar art.
At the start of the tour, Johnston, who has spent the last seven years researching Myanmar art history, gives a quick overview of who’s who in the art world and the prevailing political movements that motivated many works.
In the backroom of Myanm/art, Johnston runs through a slide show of Myanmar’s foundational artists, starting from the colonial era master of portraiture, U Ba Nyan, through the 1980s with more subversive artists like Bagyi Aung Soe and Khin One, both of whom were masters in their respective eras.
“But when you go to a gallery in Yangon today,” she says, finishing the slides, “you never see this kind of work on display.” These master artists, she continues, are scattered throughout local and foreign collections, largely unavailable for ordinary museums-goers to appreciate, let alone study.
Because of this, Myanm/art’s tours aren’t so much chronological journeys through the country’s art history, but a visual sampling of its contemporary masters alongside Johnston’s historical commentary for context.
The first stop on our tour is the small, unassuming Wired on 39, run not by a Myanmar artist but a Scottish one. Photographer and sculptor Don Wright, has lived in Myanmar since 2012. He creates portraits of the country’s diverse landscape and metal wire sculptures replicating the human as well as the insect form.
After filling his home with large ant sculptures, which take one week to fashion, Wright decided to open a studio – not just a place for him to create and store his work, but as a meeting point for local artists, and a place for him to share photography skills with others.
The tour continues down 39th street and over to Pansodan Road, a street defined by booksellers and galleries heralded as staples to Yangon’s art scene.
We head to Pansodan Scene, not to be mistaken with Pansodan Gallery up the street, both of which are owned by artist and entrepreneur, Aung Soe Min. Yet, upon arrival, the gallery’s locked gates preclude us from the massive collection of paintings, drawings, and art paraphernalia.
No matter; for Johnston it is the perfect time for short spiel on Myanmar art collections.
“My hope is for a government archive of Myanmar art,” she says, “I would love to see a permanent collection here.”
Much like Aung Soe Min’s. But, she adds, one which can withstand the harsh weather conditions and has long-term support by the state.
On the way to Lokanat Gallery, which currently features the work of its members, a bookstore catches Johnston’s eye.
At Pyannyar Shwetaung bookstore, the walls are lined with classic examples of commercial Myanmar art – landscapes of the countryside, monks collecting donations, representations of Sule pagoda through a rain drizzled optic.
“Myanmar art can be more than just scenes of everyday life,” she says, “but the education system doesn’t encourage imagination.”
Yet many Myanmar artists knows the market well, producing commercial works they know will sell instead. They know what foreigners want and expect, and even as the country integrates into the global economy, this demand has not waned.
Lokanat gallery, which opened in 1971, is the city’s oldest gallery. The members show features some of Myanmar’s biggest names in contemporary art such as Pe Nyunt Way, the oldest surviving founding member of the gallery.
Johnston guides the tour through the three rooms, which are silent apart from the table of afternoon tea drinkers, presumably fellow artists themselves.
She points to Pe Nyunt Way’s work, describing his work as heavily influenced by the Impressionists, “with active paint brush strokes” rousing movement into his work.
Another member, Chan Aye – who is both a painter and a sculptor – derives his inspiration from the Surrealists with abstract shapes and pallid pastel colours. In 2014, he was invited to show his work at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, where he was commissioned to paint on enormous canvases which he had previously never done.
“When the opportunities arise for Myanmar artists to show abroad,” says Johnston, “they do wonders.” And create beyond what they thought was possible.
After a quick break at a teashop, we head to our last stop: River Gallery, which has the look and feel of a New York gallery space, has been a hub of contemporary art, both for view and for sale since 2006. Here experimental and provocative sculptures and paintings are on display from Aung Ko’s “Onwards,” a series of golden human statues to Htein Lin’s most recent, “Signs of the Times,” a collage work of plastic signboard scraps.
On the way back to Myanm/art, the tour pauses various times to admire the objects sold on the street: caged green birds, bags of herbal shampoo, painted porcelain tea sets. Once back in the gallery, we peruse through Myanm/art’s own collection of art, as workers assemble the lighting for the upcoming exhibit of clay figures in Nge Lay’s “The Gate” which opens on December 23.
While our tour visited only four galleries, Myanm/art’s tours span across the downtown and uptown repertoire. Whether you’re just passing through Yangon or a longtime resident, the tours offer a necessary historical background and range for understanding the contemporary world of Myanmar art.
To book a tour, email Nathalie Johnston at [email protected]