Myanmar’s art education: Out with the old, in with the new

Myanmar’s contemporary artists are swapping tradition for innovation despite an old-fashioned art education system.

As Myanmar modernises at breakneck speed, the country’s artists are beginning to question the traditional art education system, proposing new models for learning and creating in the globalised art world.

Aye Ko, 'Self Portrait 01', 1999-2007.

Aye Ko, ‘Self Portrait 01’, 1999-2007.

In Myanmar, art education is more about preserving the old than discovering the new. Steeped in traditional art training, state schools are not currently encouraging young artists to experiment, question or research. As a result, artists have had to build their own networks, both local and international, to supplant the lack of support and initiative by institutions.

How does this affect the development of the local art scene, not to mention the global perception of contemporary art in Myanmar? Who are the artists who did benefit from the formal schooling system and who are those who broke out on their own? Whether a reaction to the stifled system or as a result of it, contemporary art has flourished despite being at odds with traditional education.

Daw Mu Mu Khin, principle of the State School of Music and Drama, described the importance of preserving traditional arts thus:

Awareness and understanding of the history of Myanmar people’s culture contribute largely to the preservation and protection of Myanmar cultural tradition, custom and heritage, and the fostering of the spirit of patriotism […] Every Myanmar citizen is carrying out one of his or her birth duties.

She is not alone in her sentiments. Young students study traditional instruments, dance, marionettes and temple construction with fervour, ultimately contributing to the long cultural history of Myanmar. Classes range from art history to music theory, all revolving around Buddhist myths and stories, courtroom dances, folk instruments and craft.

Myanmar’s Ministry of Culture, established in 1952, makes all decisions pertaining to the university curriculum. Many of the professors have been in the nationalised system from the beginning of their careers. The ministry’s goals are heavily in line with promoting national unity and patriotism, “helping to eradicate culture which is unsuitable for society … and develop good character, morals and mentality for the people.” The value placed on art being “in line with customs” does not require up-to-date classrooms nor amenities.

Drawing classroom at the University of Arts and Culture Yangon.

Drawing classroom at the University of Arts and Culture Yangon.

The first-year drawing class at the University of Arts and Culture Yangon is taught in Burmese, but all instructions are written in English on the blackboard. Classrooms are sparsely equipped and there are no computers in the fine arts department or library. Old paintings from the Socialist era collect cobwebs on the walls. Students study painting, sculpture and carving, traditional aesthetics, museum and conservation studies, and commercial art.

Professors often use their classrooms as studios, and students are therefore inclined to copy or imitate drawing and painting styles. When a visiting international artist asked students whether they ever used the internet to research art or artists, the reply was an apathetic “no.”

Some believe this to be the reason Myanmar art is so tourist-friendly, depicting the beautiful temples of Bagan and natives of Nagaland. Many of these artists were trained under old Masters who taught in the state school system.

When artists did begin to experiment, it was with style and not subject matter. U Lun Gwye and Bagyi Aung Soe, for example, brought a touch of western Impressionism to create a modern art revolution in Myanmar – which was not looked on favourably at the time. In Asia Art Archive’s most recent Field Notes issue, scholar Yin Ker points out the reactions of traditionalists to Bagyi Aung Soe’s work:

Even Min Thu Wun [a famous writer in Myanmar] was disappointed that the wunderkind’s works had strayed from Burmese art – a criticism that did not take into account the full scope of Aung Soe’s experimentations embracing traditional Burmese painting and modern European art alike.

Bagyi Aung Soe.

Bagyi Aung Soe.

Introducing western elements in Myanmar art was not encouraged in the years following Myanmar’s Socialist era. With so much focus on the Burmese-ness or tradition, an opportunity to expand or inspire was lost on the state-run art schools of Myanmar.

Artists change the education agenda

Enter the independent art movement of the late-1980s: in Mandalay, Yangon, Taungyyi, and elsewhere, poets, artists and activists met on the streets and in secret to discuss the translated texts or magazine clippings of famous artists.

In an interview, artist Nyein Chan Su of Studio Square in Yangon said that a Newsweek article about Chris Burden inspired him to create a performance art piece. Artists such as Aung Myint of Inya Art Gallery and Aye Ko of New Zero must have been exhausted from years of artistic formalities without systemic changes.

By the mid-1990s, artists were creating their own “schools”, recruiting young artists and inviting international artists to create exchange programmes. Jay Koh and Chu Chu Yuan were some of the first international artists to combine forces, and create dialogues and events for Myanmar artists. Following, performance art entered into Yangon and paved the way for future festivals, such as Beyond Pressure Performance Art Festival, founded in 2008.

Nyein Chan Su performance.

Nyein Chan Su performance.

Even today, Mandalay remains the capital of Burmese culture and history. There, artists developed a parallel movement, some like Suu Myint Thein, Phyu Mon and Chan Aye collaborating with groups in Yangon. Smaller cities like Dawei and Pathein did not have the infrastructure to support avant-garde art movements, so artists such as Ma Ei and Po Po moved to the city for increased exposure. Very few artists found the inspiration they needed solely from the Universities of Arts and Culture throughout Myanmar and, in fact, many of Myanmar’s contemporary artists today did not study art in school.

Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu, screenshot from an interactive computer program for 'Museum Project #7: Taungyi Open Air Museum of New Media Art', 2012-2013, Interactive computer program: Phyoe Kyi, Phyoekyi Portfolios 1.0, 2012 Photo courtesy: nnncl workshop. Image courtesy the artists.

Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu, screenshot from an interactive computer program for ‘Museum Project #7: Taungyi Open Air Museum of New Media Art’, 2012-2013, Interactive computer program: Phyoe Kyi, Phyoekyi Portfolios 1.0, 2012.
Photo courtesy: nnncl workshop. Image courtesy the artists.

Two artists making the traditional international

However, there is one artist couple whose work reflects their formal training, yet through the evolution of their subject matter and career trajectory they have developed into internationally renowned artists. Wah Nu and Tun Win Aung met in art school. She studied music and he, painting. Her father was a famous director, Maung Wanna, and his filmmaking deeply influenced her later work. Paintings by Tun Win Aung were a precursor to much of the landscape painting seen today in Yangon galleries.

The couple’s work moved away from their classroom media and later combined their interests to include: carefully painted installation pieces, photographed and hung in white frames; edited movie clips of disappearing rivers of Myanmar; speeches made by national heroes; and screen prints with graphic symbols, reflecting critically on a cultural tradition.

A sea-change in Myanmar’s art scene?

What is changing for the arts in cities in Myanmar is the scene. Contemporary artists have taken it upon themselves to educate, share, exhibit and archive. Even professors of art at the universities and state schools express a desire to involve themselves in satellite art movements, but remain restricted due to the objectives of the state to “safeguard cultural tradition.” Critical writing, aesthetics, exposure to art theory, international art movements and objective teaching methods for the most part remain absent. Nevertheless, one can attempt to further involve the schools and institutions in the greater conversation of arts in Myanmar, enabling artists to learn from global art history and look to the country’s art future.

 Nathalie Johnston

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Related Topics: Myanmar art and artists, Southeast Asian art, art and the community, art education

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