Freedom to create: Myanmar’s artists explore an open society

Faced with rapidly increasing access to information and technologies, Burmese artists are responding in the best way they know: through their art.

Myanmar is changing rapidly, with technology driving a communication boom in the once isolated land. But how are artists responding to the shifting social landscape and what does the future hold for creativity in Myanmar?

Poster from photography show in Singapore in May 2013. Photo courtesy of Curator Zhuang Wubin.

Poster from photography show in Singapore in May 2013. Photo courtesy of Curator Zhuang Wubin.

In Myanmar, communication is slow. Although the last two years have brought an increase in international interest and the hope for social improvements, changes occur while tangible progress lags; in 2012, less than one percent of the population in Burma had access to the internet and only five percent had mobile phone access.

However, the near future may look very different. In June 2013, a tough competition came to a halt when two private telecommunication giants, Telenor (Norway) and Ooredoo (Qatar), were awarded licensing to overhaul Myanmar’s telecom infrastructure. Both companies will hire thousands of Burmese nationals in the next six months and attempt to create phone networks reaching ninety percent of the population in the next five years. Wholly foreign-owned, there seems to be no logistical or financial limit to these companies’ ability to reach their goals.

Digital media exhibition at the November 2012 International Multimedia Art Festival held at the Alliance Française in Yangon.

Digital media exhibition at the November 2012 International Multimedia Art Festival held at the Alliance Française in Yangon.

Greater connectivity, but will communities adjust?

Internet access, meanwhile, remains under the control of state-owned Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT). A recently signed contract between MPT and China Unicom promises to construct an optical fibre cable over land from the Shan State bordering Yunnan to Ngwe Saung Beach near Burma’s Ayeyarwaddy Delta region, where it will connect to a submarine cable already in existence. The government of Burma is especially interested in mobile service internet access, partnering with China Unicom, Telenor and Ooredoo on all aspects of Burma’s poor communications infrastructure, in a move that will create major changes for those living in Burma today. According to a detailed Radio Free Asia (RFA) report titled “Internet Access and Openness: Burma 2012,” improvements in communication will “define the future of civil liberties in Burma,” but after so long without an opportunity to “connect”, won’t communities find it difficult to adjust?

Art against all odds: Myanmar’s visual interpreters

Artists have long been the visual interpreters of the plight of Myanmar’s citizens. Creating work despite stringent censorship laws and restricted access to international news and cultural commentary, Burmese artists established their own avenues of communication. Using international networks provided by autonomous entities such as NGOs, the British Council and the Alliance Française, artists were often able to create and communicate with the outside world. With the free access to information and rapidly increasing speed of communication in Myanmar today, how will artists react? Will their work shift towards the digital? Will they address more global issues? And with whom will they choose to communicate?

Artists explore Myanmar’s expanding horizons

Greater access to information has already had a discernible effect on Burmese art. After the grip of censorship loosened, “news-related websites from foreign and domestic media outlets became the most viewed online,” says Radio Free Asia, and this change did see a particular increase in the creation of politically themed artistic projects. In the past two years, artists including Ko Z, San Zaw Htway and Zoncy have created new conversations addressing themes of environmental activism, ethnic violence, as well as instigating a critique of Burmese society’s often conservative view towards women, intimate relationships, religion and traditions.

"San Zaw Htway uses recycled materials to create images promoting environmentalism." Photo by Nathalie Johnston, used with permission of San Zaw Htway.

“San Zaw Htway uses recycled materials to create images promoting environmentalism.” Photo by Nathalie Johnston, used with permission of San Zaw Htway.

New technologies inspire new art methodologies

It is not only the improvement in access to information that will change artists’ work, but also the improvement and access to new technologies. Recently featured in the UBS Map exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, artist couple Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu have experimented with digital media such as video for almost a decade. Tun Win Aung started out as a painter, while Wah Nu began with a degree in music, but their shift to new media has mirrored the enormous changes in Burmese life and society over the past ten years. The artists now use video and the internet to address a wide range of issues, such as the effects of development on the environment of Myanmar, showing the viewer how the landscapes have literally changed shape since they were children. Curator Zhuang Wubin recently drew attention to artists such as Po Po, Phyu Mon and Nge Lay, who work with the relatively new medium of photography, as part of a show in Singapore titled “Re-connect: Contemporary Photography in Myanmar” (May 2013).

Introduction to “Re-Connect: Contemporary Photography from Myanmar” from Zhuang Wubin on Vimeo.

The market value of artistic freedom

Access to new technology and exposure to western ideals of consumerism and communication comes at a price. Visual artists will have similar complaints to their western counterparts when it comes to placing a market value on their work. The content of the artwork may remain a commentary on the damaging effects of censorship in the media, but if it is exhibited internationally or fetches a high price at a gallery or auction show, the “market” suddenly appears and a competition begins. In a recent research article conducted by Thura Swiss, a Myanmar research and consulting firm, author Phway Su Aye discussed the market value of painters and sculptors in Yangon and the future accountability of galleries and dealers to local artists. With money comes an invented valuation system, making some wealthy and famous and largely ignoring others. China, Indonesia and Thailand’s art markets have all suffered this gap and their artists continue to navigate a world where money and meaning have blended into one ultimate goal.

Myanmar’s open society: the future

Increases in communication, access to new technologies and the arrival of a market economy will have a vast impact on artists and the greater population of Myanmar, but there is no way to quantify these changes as yet. With very little translation, interpretation, international exposure or interest, the effects of coming technology and of both European and Asian influences remain to be seen. But the artists will be the first to create and comment, and it is they who the world should be watching for the positive and negative effects of an open society.

Nathalie Johnston

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Nathalie Johnston is a writer and founder of Myanmar Art Evolution, a platform mapping contemporary art in Burma. She is based between Yangon and Beijing.
Related Topics: Burmese/Myanmar artists, new media art, articles by experts, art and technology

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