Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Myanmar: the deal of the art

ARTISTS are notoriously tormented – think about Van Gogh and his mutilated left ear. Some argue frustration is part of their creative process, but how about their fans? Should they be frustrated too?

Artist Bagyi Aung Soe's painting (collection of Aung Min)Artist Bagyi Aung Soe's painting (collection of Aung Min)

Most in Myanmar are.

“I have been craving for a painting from Grand Master Htain Lin for years, but I will never be able to afford one,” moans Soe Hnin Aung, a Burmese artist and art collector.

In 2015, Soe Hnin Aung opened a gallery with the hope of, one day, pinning his most-desired paintings on one of his walls.

Let’s face it: collecting art is an expensive hobby. But Myanmar is a particularly tough place for art fans.

Elsewhere in the world, those of us who do not have the pockets large enough to own paintings or sculptures can still enjoy them in art museums. To date, Myanmar has no such institutions, no shelters for art lovers.

“Bringing the art to a greater number of people should not be the artists’ concerns, but the government’s,” says Myanmar’s internationally known painter Min Wae Aung. “Spaces should be accommodated in public parks for artists’ works. This is what local authorities did in South Korea for instance. Our country is lagging behind.”

Artist Min Wae Aung paints his famous monks. Photo: Aung KhantArtist Min Wae Aung paints his famous monks. Photo: Aung Khant

Min Wae Aung studied at Yangon’s School of Fine Arts in 1982. He struggled most of his artist’s life to make the end meets – not that he wanted to live the bohemian lifestyle but he simply could even afford a pair of slippers at the time, he painted some instead.

Min Wae Aung broke through in 1988 with a series of painted monks and nuns which foreigners took a liking to. Today, Min Wae Aung’s paintings have the biggest price tags in Myanmar. He sells pieces for thousands of dollars.

Such international breakthroughs are rare for Myanmar’s artists. Min Wae Aung is undeniably talented, but he was also lucky.

In 1992 he was selected by a US government-sponsored exchange program to tour the states.

In 1993, despite the difficulties to travel abroad, he went to Japan and made a bang there.

By 1994 his work had spread to the whole ASEAN region. He soon connected with Karin Weber, a famous gallery owner in Singapore and his gateway to the European market.

However, there is one downside to the success story: Min Wae Aung is now out-of-the reach with his fellow countrymen.

The laws of the market are tough for local consumers. “If I sell a painting US$4500 on the international market, then I must sell a similar painting at a similar price on the Burmese market,” he explains.


Myanmar has four different art markets – which are not all legal.

One market is reserved for the happy few and contains internationals pieces. Another has been created by local artists, where they trade and exchange their works.

In a third, one can buy copies of the old masters, but illegally. Anyone caught purchasing one of these copies can be charged or sued.

A fourth one is dedicated to copies of contemporary artists. Ironically, as Myanmar has no proper copyright laws, contemporary artists are less protected than the dead ones.

The revered old masters’ artworks are almost all gone anyway. “Nearly all the originals their finest pieces were purchased by international collectors and museums,” explains Min Wae Aung.

Artist U Kyar Nyunt’s painting (Aung Min’s colletion)Artist U Kyar Nyunt’s painting (Aung Min’s colletion)

U Aung Min from the Magic Art gallery is the happy owner of one of these rare treasures. He has an original from U Kyar Nyunt which depicts the royal family. A rare composition made of real gold and silk.

The art of the deal

First of all, if you want to become a good art dealer or collector in Myanmar you have to understand paintings. In short: know your history - which artist, which era, which techniques, etc.

But the important thing in the art business is to never negotiate. Stay true to the value of the piece you hold. A name and a brand can easily be tarnished or devalued. Talk the price down once, and you will face a precipice.

Then there are the persons you must know. There are only 10 artists in Myanmar whose works are worth more than $10,000 – The average price for a painting otherwise is $100.

On the buying side, focus on the international. Most of the clients in Myanmar are foreigners. Few Burmese buy from Burmese artists.

The Edge Auction in Malaysia. Photo: Myint SoeThe Edge Auction in Malaysia. Photo: Myint Soe

Set up a gallery, and start dealing.

“Burmese galleries promote Burmese artists in international auctions and cut themselves a piece of the cake,” says U Myint Soe, a seasoned art collector and owner of Summit Art Collection in Yangon.

According to him, Myanmar’s art market has a lot of catching up to do before it reaches the level of maturity of Singapore or Hong Kong, where many wealthy business figures enjoy some of the most expensive art works available in Asia.

For U Myint Soe, Myanmar must become less reliant on foreign buyers and grow a vibrant local art scene. That will inspire more people to turn to the art and raise standards.

With more people in the market, the network of sellers will professionalise.

Today, buyers just go directly to the artists, who are not the best negotiators. Skilled intermediaries and art dealers must emerge.

The politics of it

Culture, is a long-neglected policy in Myanmar. Much is being done to celebrate our national heroes but there are no art museums to celebrate our cultural heroes.

Government should perhaps save the statues of a general or two and start funding museums. Similarly, wealthy Burmese should donate to the arts.

There are about 60,000 artists in Myanmar, according to art collector Aung Min – the Myanmar traditional artist and artisan organization has listed 10,000 members, but a lot of artists are not registered. They all deserve a little push, or at least they must not be prevented from flourishing internationally.

“Any artist needs this to hold a license to exhibit [their works] aboard,” explains artist Min Wae Aung. The license is issued by the ministry for cultural and religious affairs and costs $500 – more than most can afford.

And then you have all these little things that make Myanmar Myanmar.

“When I participate to international auctions, my Myanmar-issued visa is often rejected,” sighs artist Aung Min.

Not exactly the state of the art.