New York: Sawangwongse Yawnghwe
By Emily Chun
Sawangwongse Yawnghwe: “Cappuccino in Exile”
Jane Lombard Gallery, New York
Hanging across the entrance to Sawangwongse Yawnghwe’s solo show at Jane Lombard Gallery on a clothesline were patterned antique silks redolent of long skirts called longyis, which are commonly worn in Myanmar. In Burmese lore, walking under longyis that belong to women is said to supernaturally sap men of their strength and bestow bad luck. As a result, they have been employed as a form of non- violent defense in the ongoing pro-democracy demonstrations in Myanmar. Hung around protest zones along with women’s undergarments, longyis have been effective in slowing down or preventing soldiers from entering. Mobilized in this way as a talismanic boundary to immunize these protest zones, longyis are a fitting way to demarcate the sacred space of Yawnghwe’s exhibition, whose works were created in response to the Myanmar military coup that began on the morning of February 1.
The textile patterns of the longyis at the entrance are echoed in nine paintings, which all feature scenes of current demonstrations or historical revolutionary figures juxtaposed with hard-edge geometric patterns. As a member of the royal family of Shan and the grandson of Burma’s first president after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948—a connection that led to his family’s exile after the 1962 military coup— Yawnghwe has an extraordinarily direct relationship with the country’s political upheaval. But even knowing this familial context that undoubtedly informs his works, one is struck by the initial illegibility of these paintings, which stand on their own aesthetically for their inscrutable, blunt juxtapositions of figuration and abstraction.
Take Protest III (all 2021), in which the right side of the painting shows a scene from the start of Myanmar’s Civil Disobedience Movement. Protesters and workers take to the streets with a black flag, inspired by punk culture. A masked woman stands defiantly next to the flag, her arms akimbo. The left half of the diptych is a symmetric web of square lines nested within one another, resulting in a dizzying visual pattern reminiscent of the black-and-white op art of Bridget Riley. Yawnghwe creates these compositions by “cutting up and blocking off the images, like old family photographs.” In doing so, he approaches the question of how to aestheticize political unrest by creating a dialectic between abstract geometricity and washed-out figuration that doesn’t conform to any schematic unitary whole.
In the painting Protest IV, for example, a violent scene of soldiers clashing with civilians is paired with a calming pattern of yellow and black triangles. The geometric designs in this painting, referencing traditional Burmese textile patterns, feel mathematical. The pattern’s systematic orderliness contrasts starkly with the emotionally charged protest scene, and thus helps to confer a sense of imperturbability or comfort in its neat geometric certainty.
The Death of a Revolution shows the Burmese independence activist Aung San (1915–47), considered the father of modern-day Myanmar, on his deathbed. In this painting, the geometric pattern seems more consonant with its paired figurative scene, as the zigzagged, perfectly symmetric design mirrors an immutability as final as Aung San’s death. By inserting historical revolutionaries like Aung San and Louisa Benson in some paintings and present- day demonstrators in others, Yawnghwe positions them all within the same cyclical time- space continuum as inheritors of the same vision.
The term “timely” is bruited about freely in descriptions of contemporary art exhibitions, but there was something truly pressing about Yawnghwe’s show, given that the coup in Myanmar has extended into an ongoing, bloody conflict with escalating civilian casualties. The personal is political for Yawnghwe at the most atomic level, and the most interesting aspect of the show was how he manages to translate this through elusive juxtapositions of hard-edge, minimalist geometric patterns with scenes of protests and revolutionaries. At times, whatever visual connection one tries to make between the two halves feels futile, though in that vein, it’s refreshing how these paintings bring into relief our instinct to try to find connection where there may be none. This is fitting for Yawnghwe’s practice, which brings people who might otherwise be at a remove into the orbit of Myanmar’s political unrest.