Streetwise: Myanmar contemporary pop art at Intersections Gallery, Singapore
Two urban artists bring Burmese contemporary art to Intersections Gallery in Singapore
Myanmar’s contemporary art is a relatively new entrant to the Southeast Asian art platform. The end of military rule in 2011 marked the beginning of a gradual relaxation in control and censorship which has allowed many contemporary artists to exhibit around the region.
‘Myanmar New Wave: Pop Art Revisited’ opens at the Intersections Gallery on September 19 and brings the works of urban artists Thu Myat and Wunna Aung to Singapore. Both are exhibiting here for the first time. The exhibition has been curated by Marie-Pierre Mol who has been working with artists from Myanmar since 2013 through gallery exhibitions and art fairs like Art Stage Singapore and Art Paris. Mol tells us that she was introduced to Thu Myat and Wunna Aung last year and was deeply impressed by the quality of their works which while rooted in the history of the country, uses a contemporary language. She explains that though she has exhibited Burmese artists regularly in the past 4 years, the genre of urban or pop art has not been shown in Singapore yet, which is why she decided to curate ‘Myanmar New Wave’ this fall.
Both artists often work in collaboration and in 2014 they jointly exhibited some of their artworks at Thavibu Gallery in Bangkok. Mol clarifies that while that exhibition focused on the spirit of street art in the works, she has curated it a little differently. Since the works were created for a gallery, they are more connected to pop art and to the strong tradition of caricature and comic art in Myanmar. She notes that Burmese people have a very strong sense of humour and self-derision and Thu Myat’s and Wunna Aung’s works are strongly rooted in this tradition rather than in street art as it exists in the West.
Socio-political commentary features strongly in both artists’ works. In ‘Myanmar Hope’, Thu Myat paints the well-known Disney icon Mickey Mouse with the slogan “Not American Dream, Myanmar Hope” stencilled across the top. He explains that with the opening of Myanmar’s economy and its warming of relations with the US, people are expecting the “American Dream” to become theirs. Instead, he feels that the nation should work towards achieving its own version of betterment and he calls this vision “Myanmar Hope “. He depicts this by adding some of Myanmar’s old cultural symbols to Mickey; the helmet that he wears was worn by Myanmar’s soldiers in the past and on his leg, he has the traditional tattoo known as Htoe Kwin to represent bravery.
Wunna Aung’s series on Myanmar’s royalty reminds one of Andy Warhol’s iconic celebrity portraits. Using eight highly recognisable figures from the last Burmese Kingdom, he repeats each figure in triplicate and spray paints them in a mix of colours. He says he wants to show that though these people lived glorious lives during their reign, they are now gone. Using contemporary street art techniques of photoshopping, stencilling and spray painting, he re-invests the figures with new meanings.
Wunna Aung’s penchant for the humourous is visible in the work ‘Banana Knows No Evolution’. The slogan is overlaid on a photographic image of an old woman selling bananas in a traditional Burmese market. Two monkeys sit alongside, eating lollipops. Wunna Aung explains that while man and monkey have evolved over time and adapted their traditional ways, the bananas will forever be bananas and know no change!
And while these young artists may not face the same constraints and challenges as those of the earlier generations of Myanmar’s artists, both have faced their share of censorship and resistance. Thu Myat tells us that he has been arrested during the military junta’s rule for his street art and had to put up surety money or face three years in jail while Wunna Aung explains that initially street or urban art was not considered proper art by the traditional artists and that it is only now with the opening of Myanmar’s economy that people recognise and accept their work.
A sure sign that things are changing is the large public wall painting that Thu Myat has recently completed. Commissioned by the French Institute in Yangon he has painted a giant mural on a flyover which is part of a larger project aimed at improving the urban landscape of the city.
More information at intersections.com.sg.
This article was written by Durriya Dohadwala for the upcoming issue of Art Republik.