The Irrawaddy

Artist Strives to Develop Myanmar Art Scene

Khin Zaw Latt. / Supplied

Whenever he returns from a foreign country, Khin Zaw Latt feels unwell with frustration. He feels sick, but not because of Zika or SARS, but at the drought of art in his country. Art museums and communities in countries like the United States, France, Singapore, and Indonesia where he has been make him realize what his country lacks. He is desperate for Myanmar’s art scene to develop.

“It will take at least nine years for us to catch up to Thailand, and that is only if Thailand’s scene stops developing in the meantime,” said Khin Zaw Latt.

Khin Zaw Latt, who has studied and held exhibitions in Asia and Europe since 2005, has noticed for a long time how much Myanmar has lagged behind in terms of art.

Two artists at Khin Zaw Latt’s artist-in-residence. / Supplied

“When I say there is no art museum in our country, my foreign friends think I am joking. There is not a single art museum in the whole country, so the gap is quite huge,” he said.

“If the government buys a certain number of paintings from individual artists as the collection of the country, then future generations will be able to enjoy them. Now, we have to go to Singapore to enjoy artist Aung Soe’s works. [The government] could not keep them some 40 years ago, and it still can’t.”

Khin Zaw Latt graduated from the National University of Arts and Culture in 2012. His Blissful Buddha, Moving Forward and Street Story series were a hit outside of Myanmar.  He won four art awards at home and abroad, and held art exhibitions in Thailand, Hong Kong, the United States, France, Canada and more. Born in 1980, the artist has achieved a high level of success at a young age.

His paintings—Buddha drawn from a non-religious perspective, street boys, vendors, common people—however, are not popular among local art enthusiasts. Only four or five paintings have been sold in Myanmar.

“It is meaningless to draw what fans like. Artists must lead them,” he said.

Students from a French school see Khin Zaw Latt’s paintings at his residence in Yangon’s Bahan Township. / Supplied

In 2010, he bought a four-acre compound in Yangon’s Kyuaktan Township to do his part for art development in Myanmar. He created an art garden and opened a free school called the Bamboo School in 2012. The school teaches art, computers and English to children in the neighborhood.

Last year, he realized a dream that he had after participating in an artist-in-residence program in Malaysia in 2008. Together with four other like-minded artists, he opened an artist residency in his art garden, which provides accommodation, meals, equipment and an allowance for artists.

As a second step, he opened an art gallery opposite the Secretariat, which features the paintings from the artist-in-residence program and other artists.

“As I earn money, I want to spend it on the development of our art scene. I invest my earnings in the art industry. The profits may be low, but the industry will develop more. I should spend the money I get from art back on art,” he said.

He wants to see Myanmar’s art standards on par with ASEAN countries but he understands quite well that this is not possible without the assistance of the government.

“The government should help open art museums, collect the works of Myanmar artists and create spaces where artists can create their works freely,” he said.

In fact, late artists had tried for this after independence in Myanmar. Artists submitted their plans for art development to then Prime Minister U Nu, but those plans never materialized amid the political instability of the country.

“We lag far behind our neighbors because there is no political, economic or social stability in our country. As political leaders who managed the country in successive periods were not able to bring stability, we became poor in every aspect,” said veteran artist U Win Pe.

“There must be political and economic stability in a country for artists to get support. But, as our country is poor, the government cannot provide them any incentives. And artists need to think freely and widely. They have been boxed in by fear.”

“If they can remove these barriers, the art world will develop. It is good that Khin Zaw Latt is striving for it philanthropically,” he said.

Khin Zaw Latt, the father of two, said: “I feel like creating new things at the moment. I am more interested in three dimensional and ready-made art. I will organize more artist-in-residence programs. I also have a plan to build an art museum on my own. I have my own collections. But, a lot remains to be done.”