Identity and Transformation–International Ceramics Artist Comes Home

12 December 2018

YANGON—“I want to strike a balance where [my work] is so beautiful that you can’t look away but also terrifying at the same time,” said ceramics artist Soe Yu Nwe, “but that’s difficult to achieve—when it’s too dark it pushes people away and when it’s too clean people think that it’s flat, it doesn’t have meaning, it’s not interesting.”

Soe Yu Nwe, an ethnic Chinese artist, grew up in Yangon and is perhaps the only Myanmar artist to make a name for herself across the international ceramic art scene. Her work is currently exhibiting at Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art and she has previously shown her work in Bangladesh, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia and the US and participated in artist residency programs across the globe. She was recently listed on Forbes 30 Under 30: Art & Style 2019.

“In my work, I explore different ways of expressing my experience of alienation, confusion and pain as a cultural outsider by creating narrative spaces that explore the lines between insides and outsides,” Soe Yu Nwe wrote in her artist’s statement on her portfolio.

Artist Soe Yu Nwe combines human forms with botanical features in her work. / Supplied

Caught in an act of transformation

Much of Soe Yu Nwe’s work is a surreal connection between humans and nature: torsos, hands and feet appear to be caught in the act of transformation with vegetative growth emerging and intertwined with vines, greenery, flowers and blossoms, often from sensitive parts of the body. The viewer may be repulsed by and drawn by the figure simultaneously.

“Combining them together and creating this dissociation is unsettling,” and this, she said, prompts the viewer to think something deeper. She sees her art as a juxtaposition of imagery and meanings, mixing human and botanical forms and connecting them with deeper ideas of identity and the inescapability of change.

An encounter with change and her Chinese heritage sticks out to her among her other childhood memories. When she was a young girl, during a visit to Lashio, her father’s hometown in northern Shan State, her family believe she had become possessed by a spirit, and decided to change her name in order to reconfigure her luck. This theme of change followed her around in her personal life and now manifests itself in her art.

“Change is something that’s inevitable—however you feel you just have to adapt to it—in my work I always try to make something very fluid to express that fluidity in terms of your own identity.”

The artist, the serpentine

She was first drawn to ceramics while studying for her undergrad in biology at Albion College, Michigan. She had just moved to the US where she “knew nothing” and the idea of identity, culture and heritage took on new meaning for her. Feelings of anxiety and alienation grew within her but she found that she could soothe them through art.

“Being away from home and being in a place that’s totally different and new, it’s stressful. I was drawn to ceramics, to the process, because when you’re making something with your hands, it alleviates that kind of anxiety.”

While occasionally dabbling in glass art, Soe Yu Nwe prefers working with clay, ceramics, glaze and porcelain. Art forms like painting or drawing require a medium, like a pen or brush, which distances the artist from the work somewhat, she said. With the soft clay in her hands, she feels more directly connected to her art and her expression. When her desired shape has been sculpted or molded, she fires it in a kiln before applying a glaze with the desired coloring and firing the piece again.

Naga Maedaw appears in her work as a “hybridized being between anthropomorphic creature and the serpentine.” / Supplied

Initially she worked with images of the hand, the limb that contains each person’s unique biological identity and “the tool we use to brings our thoughts and ideas to the world.” More recently a mythical queen from the Buddhist Jataka Tales, Naga Maedaw, appears in her work as a “hybridized being between anthropomorphic creature and the serpentine.”

Today, serpentine imagery features strongly in her portfolio. Sometimes the snake is dissected to reveal colorful innards and growth sprawling through bones and out of skin, sometimes hiding behind a perfect outer layer, the brightly speckled or golden skin hiding the secrets of the inner serpentine—much like the human. It connects to the artist’s own identity too, as the snake is her Chinese zodiac sign.

Serpents are a prominent theme of Soe Yu Nwe’s work. / Supplied

Ceramic wares have been crafted in Myanmar for centuries but as an art form, it’s not yet popular here. The 29-year-old artist says her biggest achievement to date has been having her artwork chosen to be part of the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art which is currently running at Australia’s most prominent contemporary art establishment, Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. She is the youngest Myanmar artist ever to be chosen for the exhibition which runs until April next year.

Her second solo show “Serpentine” opens at Myanm/art this weekend. / Supplied

Her upcoming exhibition in Yangon, her second solo show, will feature a variety of work including “snakes” and sculptures as well as a collection of collaborative pieces which she worked on with the students of Yangon International School. “Serpentine” opens at Myanm/art on Bogalayzay Street on Saturday Dec. 15 with an opening party at 6 p.m. and will run until Dec. 29.