“Burma by Proxy”: Melissa Carlson champions political Burmese art – interview

On the eve of Myanmar’s landmark elections this November, Melissa Carlson brings Burmese political paintings to Hong Kong. 

“Burma by Proxy: Art at the Dawn of Democracy” runs at Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre from 24 to 26 October 2015. Curator Melissa Carlson talks to Art Radar about the pop-up political show.

Aung Kyi Soe, 'Bowl of Fish (Blind Knowledge series)', 2015, acrylic on canvas, 91.44 x 121.92 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Aung Kyi Soe, ‘Bowl of Fish (Blind Knowledge series)’, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 91.44 x 121.92 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

One year ago, the important exhibition “Banned in Burma: Painting Under Censorship” (2014) introduced Hong Kong audiences to the first groundbreaking survey of censored Burmese paintings produced during Myanmar’s years of military rule.

This October, in anticipation of Myanmar’s general elections on 8 November 2015, Hong Kong welcomes a fresh new batch of Burmese paintings made specifically in response to recent political developments. Art Radar talks to curator and organiser Melissa Carlson about politics and censorship, her love for Burmese contemporary art and her favourite works from the show.

San Minn, 'Ego', 2001. Image courtesy the artist.

San Minn, ‘Ego’, 2001. Image courtesy the artist.

“Burma by Proxy: Art at the Dawn of Democracy” contains over 50 paintings by leading Burmese artists, and many works were made in anticipation of the upcoming elections. Can you tell us how this timely exhibition came about? 

I’ve always been passionate about politics and development, and I’m also an art lover. My work with Burmese art brings together all of those things – in graduate school my paper explored the mechanics of censorship of art in Myanmar, and I got to know a lot of artists while doing research for my thesis.

This show is a follow-up to last year’s exhibition “Banned in Burma”, also held in Hong Kong. The upcoming elections in Myanmar are such a groundbreaking, historical event, and I thought it would be interesting to do a show about it – to not exactly test the boundaries of the relationship between art and politics, but to sort of get artists to tap into the excitement and the atmosphere of the democratic developments.

Aung Kyi Soe, 'Cages (Blind Knowledge series)', 2015, acrylic on canvas, 106.68 x 121.92 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Aung Kyi Soe, ‘Cages (Blind Knowledge series)’, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 106.68 x 121.92 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

You have done a lot of work in Myanmar, and you personally know a lot of the artists. Did you commission the works that will be on show?

Ko Pyay Way, the owner of Nawaday Tharlar Gallery is a good friend of mine, and we organised this show together, putting out an open call inviting artists to submit works. Not all the artists in “Burma by Proxy” are from Nawaday Tharlar – we wanted to be more inclusive, hence the invitation was opened up to all artists in Burma. Many artists responded. In fact, I just returned from Yangon where I picked up a final batch of art for the exhibition. They are all very strong pieces.

Do you discern any linkages, aesthetic or thematic, between the works in “Banned in Burma” last year and the upcoming show? 

Oh yes indeed – in the sense that artists are continuously bumping up against the boundaries of censorship, which is itself shifting. This year I’m part of a research programme, Ambitious Alignments, funded by the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories initiative through the University of Sydney, NSW, and through the programme I’m continuing my research on censorship in Myanmar. I’ve found that galleries nowadays bear more of the brunt of the censorship policy. While artists feel more free in what they dare to express in their work, the galleries are the ones who are actually signing a piece of paper saying they’ll bear the legal repercussions for what they’re showing.

So it’s all very interesting, and what we’re going to see on 24 October is going to be a nice follow-up to “Banned in Burma”. That show contained a lot more historical works – a lot of them were from the 1970s – whereas in this show there are a lot more fresh and contemporary paintings.

Brang Li, 'No More Lives, Nuns (Sule Pagoda)', 2015, acrylic and soot on canvas, 91.44 x 121.92 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Brang Li, ‘No More Lives, Nuns (Sule Pagoda)’, 2015, acrylic and soot on canvas, 91.44 x 121.92 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

On that note, can you elaborate more on the present censorship situation in Burma now? 

In terms of the artists, most of them will say that while there’s still a censorship policy in place, it’s much more lenient than before. If you’re a gallery owner you have to apply for a permit, and someone from the government will come and approve the works and give you a certificate. But apparently now the process is much more seamless – they haven’t heard of anyone not being approved for a while.

If you don’t participate in the process, however, you’ll get in trouble. This is what happened to Nawaday Tharlar Gallery some time ago – they were sort of turning a blind eye to the process for a while, and not participating, and they received a warning letter. That’s what I mean by the galleries feeling more of the heat – last year several paintings, featuring nudes, were told to be removed from Lokanat Galleries. That was a rare incident though; as I said, the censorship process is more of a symbolic one now.

What about self-censorship? 

I think there’s still a lot of self-censorship, and that applies to both artists and people who work in print media – people know what they can and cannot express. Last year, after “Banned in Burma”, one of the artists from the show, San Minn, decided that he would take all of his previously censored works and put them all on display in Yangon. He asked me to write the foreword for the exhibit. Usually, when there’s a show in Yangon, there’s a lot of publicity. But for this particular show, there was no press coverage at all. Everybody noticed that.

As for the artists themselves, a lot of them have told me in my research interviews that they don’t feel quite comfortable painting anything related to the religious tension. Very few artists are willing to tackle the tension or inter-communal violence.

Sandar Khine, 'The Naked Truth', 2015, acrylic on canvas, 121.92 x 182.88 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Sandar Khine, ‘The Naked Truth’, 2015, acrylic on canvas, 121.92 x 182.88 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Can you share any personal stories about one or two artists that are in the upcoming show? 

Sandar Khine, a female artist, was in “Banned in Burma” as well – we showed a few of her works there, as she used to be quite heavily censored in Burma. So I’m really excited because this year we’re not only able to show even more of her works; we’re able to sell them as well.

To me she’s quite special – her works are really strong, but more importantly she’s one of the only female painters working with nudes. Nudes are quite prolific now, but they’re mainly done by male artists who actually use pornography to paint their nudes. So it’s all very sexual, portraying a Western male gaze. Sandar Khine’s work is rare, she paints from live models, often inviting family members to pose for her. People often disapprove of female artists depicting nudity, so I really admire her for her strength and courage, and her determination to follow her heart even in the face of censorship at both the governmental and societal level.

Another artist that I want to highlight is Zun Ei Phyu. She’s amazing. She does paper cuts, and her work touches upon important social issues in Myanmar that fly under the radar, such as religious tension, women’s social status, their vulnerability, etc.

Zunei Phyu, 'Point of View', 2015, paper cut. Image courtesy the artist.

Zunei Phyu, ‘Point of View’, 2015, paper cut. Image courtesy the artist.

Both artists you highlighted are female. Do you detect a trend – an empowerment of female Burmese artists?

Myanmar is very much a male-dominated culture. What these female artists are doing is very rare and special, and I hope to highlight that and encourage that. In “Banned in Burma” we had only two female artists; in this show I’m really trying to pull in more of them, to bring female artists more to the forefront.

A very interesting thing is that a lot of the female artists have two jobs – they have a main job, and then they’re an artist on the side. You won’t find that with male artists, because it’s okay for them to say art is their main career. For the women, however, say for Sandar Khine, she’s now known internationally with her works exhibited around the world and also collected frequently, but in Myanmar you would never know that. If you ask her, she’ll say she’s a teacher. And Zun Ei Phyu, she’s an experienced doctor. They go to work and after work they produce really, really strong paintings.

Do you think Burmese art is coming into the spotlight? What are the main challenges that Burmese artists face?

There’s always been a strong Myanmar art scene and painting culture, and for years it’s been one of the most intact artistic communities I’ve seen. For many years it remained completely untouched by the international art market. And in a way that’s good, because Myanmar artists were able to work and produce in an environment that was free from the constraints of market demand and international taste.

That’s beginning to change, I think. Some artists are coming into demand. There’s no blue-chip Burmese artist yet, but you do see museums buying up several of them. San Minn is a rising star, Sandar Khine was just named one of the five Myanmar artists to watch, and Aung Myint was one of the first major Burmese artists to enter an international museum – the Guggenheim in New York commissioned a painting from him.

There’s also a negative part of the spotlight, though. Parallel to the increasing awareness of Burmese art is a sense of an increasing divide in the local art community. There’s a sense of, like, why is this artist making more money than the rest of us? But of course in Burma there’s sort of two classes of artists. There’s the type that paints rice paddy fields to cater to the tourists, and then there’s the type that’s all along been trying to do something else, something different.

Brang Li, 'Beauty, Love, Revolt and Hope', 2014, acrylic and soot on canvas, 121.92 x 121.92 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Brang Li, ‘Beauty, Love, Revolt and Hope’, 2014, acrylic and soot on canvas, 121.92 x 121.92 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

You’re also doing something very different by promoting Burmese art abroad – and in a metropolitan city, no less! Last year you said “Banned in Burma” was a real ‘labour of love’, with budgeting being particularly stressful. Are things better this time around? 

For “Banned in Burma”, the 50 or so works that we were exhibiting but not selling really stretched us financially. This pop-up show is nicer because we can control the budget. It’s still a labour of love, though, because of the multiple trips to Yangon involved. It’s the physicality of it – each time I’m lugging tubes of paintings on the plane I ask myself how much longer I’m able to do this!

But it’s always fun to give artists an opportunity to exhibit abroad. And of course what I’m trying to do is to remind people outside of Burma that there’s much more to Burmese art than meets the eye. When I remember that, it makes it all better.

How was Hong Kong’s response to “Banned in Burma” last year, and what are your hopes for “Burma by Proxy”?

“Banned in Burma” was quite well-received. We had many different visitors, from art investors to teachers and representatives from non-profit NGOs. And of course, the show coincided with the Umbrella Revolution, so that generated interesting conversations about democracy. So I’m really looking forward to the conversations that will come out of “Burma by Proxy”. In a sense, it could be called “Hong Kong by Proxy”, because elements of the upcoming election in Myanmar is what many in Hong Kong have been trying to achieve.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Myanmar/Burmese artistscensorship of artpolitical artpainting, interviewsevents in Hong Kong

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