SANDAR KHAINGUntitled, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 18 × 25 cm. 
Photo by Jessica Keung. Courtesy the artist. 

Through Burmese Eyes

Ian Holliday

Myanmar Hong Kong United Kingdom
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

Hong Kong has a reputation for art collections of all kinds, from the private to the well-publicized. Yet unknown to most of the art community are the holdings of Ian Holliday, a professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) who is gradually assembling the largest private collection of contemporary Burmese art in the world.

I first heard of Holliday through a friend who does volunteer work in Myanmar. He mentioned that the British academic was exhibiting part of his collection at Harvard University, sponsored by the school’s Asia Center and the South Asia Institute, in February 2016. I was intrigued and attempted to meet Holliday, but was unsuccessful for more than a year—Holliday has been busy, serving as HKU’s vice president and pro-vice-chancellor since 2015. In April of this year, when we finally connected, he warmly welcomed me to his office on the top floor of the Knowles Building on the HKU campus.

Unlike some collectors who attract attention through their flashy or eccentric clothes, Holliday sports blazers and dress shirts, and wears round wire-rimmed spectacles. The professor studied Western political theory—specifically English conservatism—at Cambridge and later earned his PhD at Oxford. After a short stint as a Fulbright Scholar at New York University, in 1999 he decided to join City University in Hong Kong where he eventually became dean of humanities and social sciences. When I askedWhy Hong Kong?” the professor replied that he was “looking for adventure.”

It was only after moving to Asia that Holliday began to read extensively on the region—particularly about former British colonies—and soon his bookshelf was dominated by titles on Myanmar. Holliday is now considered one of the world’s experts on the South Asian country that is nestled between the two giants of India and China. He has published more than 100 academic titles on the country including Burma Redux: Global Justice and the Quest for Political Reform in Myanmar, released by Columbia University Press in 2011.

Although he dabbled in buying paintings at local galleries when he first arrived in Hong Kong, it was only after 2010, during Myanmar’s political transition from military rule to a quasi-civilian democracy, that Holliday began to collect in earnest. He reflected, “Obviously in those days [prior to the transition] you couldn’t do scientific research; all you could do is sniff the air. In those days, political civil society and artistic civil society were small, and they overlapped. If you sat down with civil-society leaders, you were often talking to painters.” One place that Holliday frequented (and continues to buy art from) is Pansodan Art Gallery—established in 2008 by artist Aung Soe Min—which served as an unofficial meeting place for intellectuals. “Artists were often around, and their work was not expensive. Coming from wealthy Hong Kong, it was almost rude of me not to buy their paintings,” Holliday said.

When political reform accelerated in 2011, the British scholar, who speaks and reads basic Burmese, decided it was time to acquire works—predominantly paintings—by the artists he had come to know over the years. “Paintings are authentic documents, made by living Myanmar people, who after 50 years of military rule were now expressing themselves with new freedom. For so long, Myanmar has been interpreted by outsiders versus insiders. I wanted perspective on these changes.” Today his collection—mainly sourced by Burmese galleries—comprises more than 1,000 works by over 100 artists, only two of whom have ever left the country.

Holliday, like many a preoccupied collector, has never sold a piece. The first painting he acquired in Yangon was The Lady (2009) by Zwe Yan Naing. It is  a simple, yet traditional acrylic portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, depicted as, Holliday said, a “Burmese ‘everywoman.’” The Nobel Peace Prize winner today plays an active role in government as State Counselor of Myanmar, the country’s de facto leader.

Despite his precise summary of the motivation behind his endeavor, Holliday describes his methodology as “haphazard.” He has expanded his collection beyond simply the artists he has encountered in person to notable figures in the Burmese art scene, past and present. His collection includes work by the acclaimed Htein Lin (who was a political prisoner from 1998 to 2004), female artist Sandar Khine, and Khin Maung Yin, one of the first modern painters in Myanmar. Looking at the collection as a whole, there are numerous portraits of Suu Kyi, as well as many figurative paintings of villagers, monks and of the evolving city life and the idyllic natural landscapes that the country is still known for. Many of the paintings depict typical scenes of Burmese culture, such as temple life and traditional festivities, and contain both subtle and explicit political messages.

Somewhat miraculously, Holliday houses 80 percent of his collection on Hong Kong Island. After buying a work, he unstretches the canvas, rolls it up in a tube and hand carries it to his storage space. Two hundred works are currently on public display at universities—mainly in Singapore, the United States and Australia. In Singapore, Holliday secured a five-year loan for 50 paintings to the Singapore Management University. While in the US in 2016, he embarked on a long road trip with a small part of his collection, which was displayed at Harvard in early 2016, and then at Yale University for a weeklong show, followed by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has since managed to find audiences at Duke University, Northern Illinois University, Guilford College in North Carolina, the University of Maryland and Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. Driven by a near obsessive passion to share Burmese art with a wider public, Holliday manages the logistics without any assistance through his personal connections.

Today Holliday is too immersed in his work as pro-vice-chancellor of HKU to travel at length to Myanmar, but he visits two times a year. His ultimate plan is to donate his collection to an institution. He has attempted collaborations with museums in Fukuoka and Singapore, but their initial responses were that the work in his collection was not cutting-edge enough. At first glance the paintings in his collection do appear conservative, even old-fashioned, when compared to counterparts in China, India or Indonesia. But one cannot overlook the fact that the country was all but closed off from the outside world until late 2010, and most of the artists active in the 20th century came out of a tradition of painting—often landscapes or of Buddhist themes—that was a leftover from British rule.

That has not deterred the ever optimistic Holliday. Aside from seeking opportunities to exhibit his collection in Asia, he is looking to find partners in the UK, Myanmar’s colonial master until 1948. “My main interest is opening up and creating new perspectives on Myanmar,” he told me. “After such a long period of isolation, people want the country to succeed and come back into the embrace of the modern world. But that’s only going to happen if we do that on a basis of understanding rather than ignorance. There are multiple ways we can do it, and I believe paintings are one way.”

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