Art is often seen as a luxury, a frivolity and not relevant to serious issues within society. From the discussions with multiple artists and visits to different artistic spaces in Yangon over the course of one day, it quickly became evident how wrong this impression is.
What immediately became clear was the sheer will and bravery of many of these artists to carve out a space for expression during some of the darkest years of censorship in Myanmar. Pioneers like Aung Myint, born in 1946, looked to constantly push the boundaries with his work and gallery, the Inya Gallery of Art, where artists gathered and could find mutual support.
Performance art emerged as a dominant form, in part because of exchanges with international artists that were able to come to Myanmar, and because of the flexibility of this form to dodge the censors and applications for licenses needed to stage an exhibition. As restrictions on holding an exhibition loosen up, it will be interesting to see whether performance art stays a relevant and urgent a form.
With the removal of the ban on freedom of the press, there is a sense of hope among the art community for not only being able to push the boundaries of artistic experimentation, but also the realization that much needed work for building what is necessary for a healthy arts infrastructure can begin. And it’s a daunting task.
The list of lacks is long – general education of art in school, resources for study, written material on the history of art from Myanmar, training, public spaces (be it alternative or museums), etc. And while there are a number of commercial galleries that have been successfully operating and providing a means of support for many artists, private collectors are few and far between. Even if you want to buy a work of art from inside or outside the country, it is almost impossible to pay with a credit card or transfer money in to the country.
While the transactional side of the art market will most likely be solved with relative ease over time as businesses move into Myanmar, what is likely to take a back seat is the formation of a cultural policy or support for the arts by the government. This is where the private sector and international experts and institutions can not only help, but make a crucial difference.
Some of the first steps to be taken should include the establishment of a physical and digital resource documenting 20th and 21st century local art, the commissioning of texts on art, developing curatorial and art criticism programmes, establishing local and international residencies, and providing fellowships and mentorship.
In the long run, offering arts will undoubtedly attract tourist dollars, but ultimately, the arts are essential for creating a dynamic, free-thinking and inclusive society in Myanmar. And that is priceless.
Authors: Claire Hsu is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Asia Art Archive (AAA). Yana Peel is, Chief Executive Officer of Intelligence Squared.
Image: Performers dance during a celebration in Yangon REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun