The intersection of Bo Soon Pat and Anawratha streets in downtown Yangon. Photo by Christopher Ian Smith.


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Myanmar celebrated its coming-out party this year. The lifting of both censorship and sanctions facilitated the beginning of global investment; arguably the most powerful human-rights figure alive today was released from house arrest and elected to parliament; and the attention of the world’s media was drawn to the complexities of Myanmar’s social strata, divided as they are by religion, language and wealth. Despite years of isolation, the country’s artists have created their own world of contemporary thought, poetry, performance and visual art. Though stripped of its “capital city” status in 2006, Yangon remains the heart and soul of Myanmar’s contemporary arts scene—practitioners from all over the country come here in the hope of joining conversations about global recognition and artistic development.

Compare it to other Southeast-Asian artistic capitals, however, and Yangon falls short. It is not a lack of talent but rather of resources that keeps its artists confined within a designated underground—outwardly fashionable yet in reality a wasteland of opportunities born in minds but never translated into action. Public art institutions barely exist; the few that do engage tirelessly with art from centuries ago, or with subjects that no longer suffice in today’s frenetic, globalized culture yard. The National University of Arts and Culture, operated by the Ministry of Culture, accepts 200 students annually to study for degrees in music, painting, sculpture, drama, archaeology and museology, focusing on traditional arts (think Burmese marionettes or formalist painting), but does little to fund artists working with new mediums or concepts.

Because of this lack of resources and institutional support, artists direct their energies toward building their own systems through artist-run spaces—successful examples include the New Zero Art Space or the Beyond Pressure performance art festival. There is also some support from commercial galleries such as Pansodan and KZL. Yet it is art on a smaller scale—the one- to two-day exhibition, happening or workshop—that has real impact. These are the events at which an unexpected conversation or visual stimulation kicks off a multitude of new writings and artworks. A few such moments in recent memory are the Blue Wind women’s multimedia art festivals in 2009 and 2010, the Bodyreports festival of poetry and performance art in 2010, the “Crossing Borders” conceptual art show, also in 2010, and this year’s “Made in Myanmar” textile show. These are the lifeblood of contemporary art in Yangon.

Artists who participated in these events, such as Aung Myint, Po Po and Nge Lay, are making headlines the world over, appearing in shows such as the New York Guggenheim’s “No Country” exhibition of new South and Southeast Asian art or this year’s Singapore Biennale. The question is, how will Yangon artists be perceived by an international audience previously unexposed not only to the city’s history but also to its methods of production, its artists and its emotional fabric?

In addition, the acute awareness of being one of the last nations to open up to capital markets has artists on edge. How will their concepts change as information and civil liberties spread across the country? And what about the prospect of an effective art market, and the wealth it may bring? Tensions are already high among artist groups as they debate the age-old question of who is fit to represent Myanmar. And, with the near disappearance of censorship and the emergence of commercial markets, does the social responsibility of artists increase or decrease? Many feel they have long been misinterpreted as “political artists” simply because of their country of origin, and not because of the content of their work.

Artists are starting to establish networks outside Yangon, including Yoma Art Space in Taunggyi, Shan State, and Mandalay Contemporary Art Center. Given Myanmar’s array of languages and cultural traditions, this diversity of location is essential. As multiple spaces develop, the country’s border regions—rife with tensions over natural resources, forced assimilation, displaced-persons camps and longterm neglect—will undoubtedly become a focus of artistic attention.

As the former capital, Yangon was once the catalyst for the spread of the country’s culture across the world, but it is only now beginning its renaissance. In the past year, the city’s first international literary festival, the Irrawaddy, as well as numerous international and local film festivals, a new anthology of contemporary poetry in translation and many more such examples all celebrated Myanmar’s creative practices. The newest spaces to open are Myanmar Deitta, a resource center for documentary photographers and filmmakers, and Open Space Yangon, dedicated to experimental art practices.

The establishment of a major art museum or educational institution remains an immediate priority, hopefully assisted by an influx of global capital and local investment. In the meantime, artists continue to bear the responsibility of providing space, ideas, education and criticism to the city of Yangon, and therefore to the population of Myanmar.