Myanmar, though not as widely associated with contemporary art as neighbouring China, India and Thailand, has established a presence at international biennales, art fairs and auction houses following the dissolution of military rule in 2011 and easing of restrictions placed on artists, both in subject matter and access to global audiences. ‘Pictures of Transition: Contemporary Paintings from Myanmar’, an exhibition of 40 works by 23 artists presented at the ANU’s School of Art & Design Gallery in March, was a product of this shift and had the distinction of being the first public display of such work in Australia since the inauguration of Burmese democracy. The works chosen varied widely in style and content yet were given coherence by their arrangement into five themes: abstraction and individualism, urban life, rural life, sociopolitical life, and beliefs.
For most Australian viewers, the last two themes were likely most familiar, calling to mind Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s Buddhist temple architecture. Daw Suu (2016), a sensitive portrait by Zwe Yan Naing, fulfils the first expectation. What seems at first an expression of devotion is complicated, however, when closer inspection reveals a collage of postage stamps, transforming Aung San Suu Kyi into a symbol for a new nation united in diversity, and celebrating the freedom of communication brought by her election as State Counsellor in 2016. Yet the fracturing of the political leader’s face could also be read as a subtle allusion to the cracks that have started to appear in her public image as news of persistent human rights abuses continues to emerge from Myanmar.
Buddhist themes predominated further into the gallery, most clearly in Shine Lu’s The Buddha’s Face (2014), one of a series of canvases recreating past schools of Buddhist art, from ancient Indian Gandhara to the nineteenth-century Burmese Mandalay style. Like the faded protagonists of a timeworn temple mural, comparable Buddha images emerged from inscrutable drips and fields of colour in Htoo Aung Kyaw’s Narrative (2013) and Lola Hasta (2017), fusing the refined iconography of the Pyu and Bagan eras with an emotive response to the pressures of contemporary life.
More than recognisably Burmese subjects, it was this range and mastery of technique that proved most appealing in ‘Pictures of Transition’. The artists, ranging across generations, handled their materials with sensitivity and expressiveness. A dizzying array of drips, slashes, voluptuous strokes, ethereal washes and impasto outcroppings of paint carried viewers through an equally eclectic range of inspiration, leaving little doubt about the defining trait of contemporary art in Myanmar: its strident individuality after five decades of government repression.
For more information, see: https://issuu.com/anuschoolofartgallery/docs/pictures_of_transition_catalogue_fi
Alex Burchmore, Canberra