NGE LAY, The Sick Classroom, 2013, 27 wooden sculptures and classroom furniture, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist. 


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Following the dissolution of the military junta in 2011, Myanmar has witnessed one of the world’s fastest socioeconomic transitions since the transformations that swept eastern Europe in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Changes abound: internet cables and pipelines now connect Myanmar to India, China and Thailand; the World Economic Forum occupied Yangon and Nay Pyi Taw for an entire week in June; President Thein Sein was considered for the Nobel Peace Prize; and the former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi continues to travel the world, building networks for the people of Myanmar.

However, the transition is not without its drawbacks. The country faces deeply ingrained ethnic conflicts, widespread environmental impacts due to foreign investment and a severe lack of educational structures and funding, leaving local artists responsible not only for bringing attention to these issues but also for supplementing the lack of supportive institutions with their own creative workshops and projects.

National art institutions remain limited in their activities. The National Museum of Myanmar (NMM) in Yangon held no contemporary art events this year. Budgetary constraints have put the NMM’s proposed site in the country’s new capital Nay Pyi Taw on hold.

Independent nonprofit spaces and organizations in Yangon are the catalysts for exciting art exhibitions and events. Among the newcomers is House of Media and Entertainment (HOME), opened in 2012 by comedian and former political prisoner Zarganar, which offers free use of its space for symposia, workshops, poetry readings and book launches. From April to June in Yangon, 7000 Padauk opened its doors to experimental work by 15-plus artists from all over Myanmar. Founded in August, Open Space Yangon is an experimental art house run by artist Nyan Lin Htet, who also promotes contemporary theater. Its opening show “Wandering in the Twilight Zone” (8/17–21) covered a range of media, from film to painting and sound installations. Myanmar Deitta is a photography and filmmaking institute that encourages young Yangonites to experiment with documentary practices.

Around the rest of the country, Yoma Art Space in Taunggyi brings contemporary exhibitions to Shan State. Up north, the Mandalay Contemporary Art Centre continues to host meaningful exchanges and mounts shows. The Myanmar Art Social Project (MASC) is a nonprofit network of artists and therapists that work with Myanmar’s youth.

There are a number of commercial galleries in Yangon, most of which exhibit traditional landscape and realist paintings, with notable exceptions such as Dagaung Art Gallery and artist-run Lokanat Galleries. Organized by Gajah Gallery in Singapore, “Lokanat – Ground Zero” (10/22–26) was a large exhibition of international artists, including Nyoman Masriadi, Ashley Bickerton and Ai Weiwei, most of them shown in Myanmar for the first time. Gallery 65 held “Vanishing Treasures of Myanmar” (7/6–8), which focused on issues of art, biodiversity and sustainability in Myanmar, with graphic designer Myint Maung Kyaw, songwriter Myint Moe Aung, environmentalist Myint Zaw, writer Ko Tar and author Ju. Pansodan Gallery recently began publishing the Pansodan Art and Culture Friday Journal in Burmese, covering arts from all over the country. Artist-run galleries Studio Square, established in 2003, and Inya Art Gallery, co-founded by Aung Myint in 1989, remain active venues.

Operating since 2008, New Zero Art Space held “Silent People or Believers: Performance and Conceptual Art Exhibition” (4/20–25), “Touch: Myanmar-Korea Art Exchange” (7/27–31) and the Nippon International Performance Art Festival ASEAN Tour (8/4), an interactive workshop attended by curators, artists, gallerists and critics from the region, organized in collaboration with the Japan Foundation. Its annual group exhibition took place at Lokanat Galleries (9/23–27) and featured 69 artists.

Under the junta, performance art was widely practiced in order to evade the government censors and it remains a vital format. Singapore’s 8th Flying Circus Project held an event in Yangon in January, collaborating with local artist groups Theatre of the Disturbed and NNNCL Workshop. The Beyond Pressure organization, led by performance artist and curator Moe Satt, collaborated with Dutch artist collective Extrapool, with a residency of four artists, including Satt, Ma Ei, Mrat Lunn Htwann and poet-performance artist Maung Day (10/14–27). Satt’s work was also featured in “A Journal of the Plague Year” (5/16–7/20) at Para Site art space in Hong Kong, and he later performed at the Zürcher Theatre Spektakel in Zurich, in August.

In the region, Singapore’s Jendela art space, with curator Zhuang Wubin, exhibited seven Myanmar artists in “Re-connect: Contemporary Photography from Myanmar” (5/17–6/30). In Yogyakarta, artist Aung Ko participated in “Riverscapes in Flux” (6/5–19), reflecting on ecological as well as cultural and socioeconomic changes of riverscapes in Southeast Asia. This year also saw a strong representation of Myanmar artists at the Singapore Biennale (10/26–2/16/14), including Po Po, Nge Lay and Aung Ko, curated by New Zero Art Space director Aye Ko.

In New York, the Guggenheim Museum exhibited works by the duo Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu and experimental art pioneer Aung Myint in “No Country: Art from South and Southeast Asia” (2/22–5/22)—the show later traveled to Asia Society Hong Kong (10/30–2/16/14). Also in the United States, artist Chaw Ei Thein created a performance with Singaporean artist Lee Wen in Chicago (10/11) in conjunction with Defibrillator Gallery, Design Cloud, IN>TIME Performance Art Festival and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Looking ahead, as rapid changes continue apace at home, Thavibu Gallery in Bangkok will look back on the work of Myint Swe in “Burmese Political Paintings 1995–2005,” beginning in April.