By Kyaw Phyo Tha 20 May 2015
YANGON — Stoutly built and covered with tattoos across his arms and torso, Ko Sid, at first glance, has the imposing look of a gangster.
His haunts are not dodgy bars, however, but Yangon’s art galleries where the affable art lover is a familiar face talking to artists young and old.
Ko Sid is one of a handful of young art collectors-cum-dealers in Myanmar endeavoring to introduce the works of the country’s emerging contemporary painters to a wider local and international audience.
“After being a tattooist for three years, I made friends with lots of painters here, probably thanks to my childhood interest in art,” Ko Sid said. “I bought my first painting in 2010 and since then, buying paintings I like has been an addiction.”
Among his more than 1,000-strong collection, now worth around US$1 million, some of his favorite works include paintings by Myanmar masters like Lun Gywe, Kin Maung Yin and Win Pe Myint.
“It’s fun to have the paintings you like,” he told The Irrawaddy during a visit to his home in a Yangon suburb. “Sixty percent of them are my favorites. Forty percent are for business.”
In his downtown “Myanmar Ink Art Gallery,” which he opened in 2011, Ko Sid regularly showcases the paintings of promising local contemporary artists such as Pho San, Khin Aung Khant and Aung Naing.
“If you want to collect the paintings of young artists, you need to have a gallery to promote their works,” he said. “It is for the survival, not only of you, but for the painters, to keep both parties doing what they want to do. I want to promote promising artists of the same generation as me.”
The veteran artist Win Pe Myint remembers Ko Sid as a young man with a great interest in art who visited him frequently over the years.
“He is a good-natured guy with a huge respect for artists and he always gives a helping hand to painters in need. I have never heard of him exploiting artists,” Win Pe Myint said.
Even during the country’s long isolation under nearly five decades of military rule from 1962-2010, Myanmar art managed to reach the outside world, sometimes with the help of art dealers who smuggled paintings out of the country.
Galleries in Chiang Mai, Hong Kong and Singapore impressed international art enthusiasts with periodic exhibitions of contemporary works from one of the most oppressed countries in the world.
Now with the gradual opening of Myanmar’s economy in recent years, the country’s contemporary art market has hit the ground running. While large art galleries and dealers remain scarce, the number of smaller galleries has been on the rise.
With more foreigners visiting Myanmar each year, uncovering the country’s true potential in the creative industries is a must, according to a report on the local art market by local consultancy firm Thura Swiss.
“Myanmar’s art business has the potential to grow exponentially, not only because of its small start, but simply because of the wealth of skills and talents of its artists,” the report said.
This is where Ko Sid comes in.
After five years dealing in art, he rarely has money in his pocket—all his earnings have gone back into building his collection.
“In this business, you can’t only look for money. You need perseverance,” he said. “But I believe all of my efforts will not be fruitless. Someday they will make a good return, when the artists I’m now promoting become prominent.”
In support of the promising young artists of today, Myanmar Ink Art Gallery is holding regular local exhibitions year-round, and is exhibiting works overseas.
From 2014, Ko Sid has been involved in international art fair exhibitions in Dubai on three occasions, becoming the first Myanmar art gallery to participate there.
“It’s a new market for Myanmar artists, compared to Hong Kong or Singapore, where there are no longer new frontiers for Myanmar paintings,” he said. “During my first trip to Dubai, people showed great interest in our paintings even though they had no idea where Myanmar was until I mentioned Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s name.”
His willingness to explore new markets has paid off. During the latest exhibition in Dubai this year, he sold nine paintings out of 15 up for sale, mostly by emerging artists, as well as earning plenty of new contacts.
“Now I’m dreaming to have an art gallery out there,” Ko Sid said. “Even though I’m thinking of expanding to other cities, I need to build firm bases here in Myanmar and the UAE.”
Although the local art market has strengthened in recent years, Ko Sid said, there are less than a dozen serious local collectors. Buying paintings for appreciation is still in the nascent stages in Myanmar, where the country’s per capita GDP is around US$1,105, one of the lowest in East Asia and the Pacific.
“Given this trend, we could lose our country’s cultural treasures. But we see no other options yet. The current situation is still workable for artists, dealers and buyers,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.