A finalist for three consecutive editions, Aye Ko tops the 2017 shortlist including female artists Arahmaiani from Indonesia and Chaw Ei Thein from Myanmar.
Announced on 10 January 2017, the win by the pioneering Myanmar artist is testament to his great involvement and dedication to using his art to advocate for democracy and freedom.
Back in December 2016, Art Stage Singapore and the US Embassy in Singapore announced the three finalists of the Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art 2017. The award recognises an artist or curator from Southeast Asia who is actively committed to the ideals of liberty and freedom of expression in their work. The winner, Aye Ko, was announced on the evening of 10 January 2017, coinciding with this year’s Singapore Art Week and the opening of Art Stage, in a ceremony presided by Kirk Wagar, US Ambassador to Singapore, and Lorenzo Rudolf, Art Stage Singapore Founder and President.
The Jury for the 2017 prize included Professor Ute Meta Bauer, Director, Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Singapore, Ms Zoe Butt, Artistic Director, The Factory Contemporary Art Centre, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and Mr Enin Supriyanto, Independent Art Curator and writer, Indonesia.
In the three-artist shortlist were Arahmaiani from Indonesia and Chaw Ei Thein from Myanmar, as well as the winner Aye Ko, also from Myanmar, who has been a finalist for the award every year since its inception in 2015. In the press release announcing the shortlisted artists, Lorenzo Rudolf commented:
I congratulate Arahmaiani, Aye Koh and Chaw Ei Thein as the finalists of the Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art 2017, an award that underscores the moral and socio- political roles of contemporary art. That two of the three finalists are women artists sends a strong message about the position of women in our societies. As artists they have worked tirelessly to bring the world’s attention to pressing socio-political issues in their home countries. As women artists, their participation in this Award serves to advance the cause for women and gender equality not only in the region, but also the rest of the world.
The winner: Aye Ko
Trained as a painter, Aye Ko (b. 1963, Pathein, Myanmar) first created impressionistic paintings before turning to performance art in the mid-1990s, to better express his advocacy for freedom and democracy in his native country. His choice was influenced by his experience of imprisonment (1990-1993) as a political prisoner. Ko saw in performance art a more direct way to engage with the audience and an ephemeral medium of expression through which he could better comment on the sociopolitical environment and situation in Myanmar.
In the 2000s he participated in the activities of the New Zero Art Group, and in 2008 he co-founded the New Zero Art Space in Yangon, where it continues to this day to move the dynamics of the local art scene and to promote Myanmar contemporary art and its younger generation.
At the award ceremony, Aye Ko received the prize commenting:
This award is really important, especially for my country Myanmar, given the political situation it has been under for a long time. I want to share the prize in order to build up even more democracy.
He also announced that that the prize money will go towards art education programmes for children, organised under his nonprofit New Zero Art Space. Ute Meta Bauer commented about Aye Ko’s win:
Aye Ko’s commitment to his community is brought forth through his work, which has said that though things may change today, an awareness has to go on. In his practice, he not only models his skills as an artist but also the attitude of an artist, which is passed down to new generations. This is very crucial, especially in a city such as Yangon, which is changing so quickly. It is important for the younger generation, in order to understand the transformation, to understand the political setting of only a few years ago. The country needs this cross-generational communication.
The shortlisted artists: Arahmaiani and Chaw Ei Thein
One of the most respected Indonesian contemporary artists, Arahmaiani (b. 1961, Bandung, Indonesia) creates powerful commentaries on social and cultural issues. In the 1980s and 1990s, she became a pioneer of performance art in Southeast Asia. Now she also works in a wide range of media, including video, installation, painting, drawing and sculpture.
In 2014, Tyler Rollins Fine Art in New York City presented her first solo exhibition in the United States, entitled “Fertility of Mind”, the first survey of the artist’s 30 years of performance art, as well as a selection of paintings, important installations from the 1990s and her key video work I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Legend (2004). In 2016, the gallery held her second solo entitled “Shadow of the Past”.
New York-based Myanmar artist and activist Chaw Ei Thein creates work that challenges and gives insight into the language of womanhood specific to her culture and Southeast Asia. In the mid-1990s she gained international attention with her performance works, and particularly in 2008 for her collaborative piece September Sweetness, created with Vietnamese-American artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran for the Singapore Biennale. The pagoda made of sugar, an ephemeral structure exposed to the relentless forces of nature, symbolised the eroding optimism in Myanmar’s society. Today, the artist continues to strive towards finding strategies and opportunities for Burmese artists to share their work, and seeks to encourage active and participatory dialogue and exchange with her artistic community in Yangon.
In her 2004 performance work Silk Cloth Chaw Ei Thein perfectly frames, in a 36-photo series documenting the performance, the situation with which artists in Myanmar had to struggle with. The artist wrapped herself in colourful silk fabrics form her sister’s business, pulled from both ends in an inescapable struggle between forces. The work represented what artists were experiencing, the limitations, the pressures, the censorship and struggle for freedom of expression.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- “Signs of the Times”: Burmese artist Htein Lin at River Gallery – in conversation – October 2016 – with 20 new works, painter, installation and performance artist Htein Lin explores Myanmar’s changing environment
- Asian performance artists at Liveworks, presented by Performance Space, Australia – October 2016 – Performance Space at Carriageworks presents Liveworks, a 10-day performance festival
- Veteran artist Po Po on Buddhism, narcissism and the Myanmar art scene – interview – August 2015 – Po Po speaks about his current retrospective at Singapore’s Yavuz Gallery, sharing insights about his artistic process and his personal hopes for Myanmar
- Art Stage Singapore 2016 launches new Southeast Asia Forum – November 2015 – Southeast Asia’s ‘flagship’ Art Stage Singapore introduces new programme focused on Southeast Asia and urbanisation
- ART|JOG|14: Redefining democracy in Indonesia and contemporary art – in pictures – June 2014 – “Legacies of Power” examines current democratic visions and historical power struggles
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