Experimental Gallery Pops Up, Pushes Boundaries in Rangoon

By Dani Patteran 1 June 2013

RANGOON—Heavy articulated trucks trundle down a congested road by Rangoon’s industrial port, throwing up dust and fumes onto a noisy sidewalk. This is an incongruous setting for an art gallery. Yet for April and May, a small, dilapidated building set right here on the main street has become a center for Burma’s vibrant experimental arts scene.

Named after the padauk flower that blooms once a year in April, 7000 Padauk has hosted an astonishing array of work by local and international performance artists, painters, photographers, musicians and actors.

“We didn’t just want somewhere to hang paintings, but wanted something more, something challenging, and to have some artists who would challenge themselves,” said co-founder Mrat Lunn Htwann. Originally from west Burma’s Arakan State, Mrat Lunn Htwann is a poet and performance artist who created the experimental space together with American Nathalie Johnston, who moved to Burma to study Burmese performance art.

After meeting three years ago, Mrat Lunn Htwann and Johnston had long talked of setting up an art space like 7000 Padauk. But with strident censorship laws under the former military government, and no space to host the exhibits, this has been an impossible dream until now.

A stroke of luck—in the shape of Mrat Lunn Htwann’s uncle, who owns the building on Kanna Road and agreed to let them use it until its demolition in June, coincided with the recent relaxing of Burma’s censorship laws as the country transitions from military rule.

The idea of 7000 Padauk was to create a free space for artists. “No curators, no text on the walls, no formal invitations. Just a come-and-go, to each artist his/her own, uncensored, experimental art space,” says Johnston.

As Mrat Lunn Htwann explains, “[People] have been trained to self-censor, so we wanted to see how artists react to this freedom.”

“At first we were worried that no artists would want to work,” he said with a laugh, but as it turned out, there was so much enthusiasm for the idea that they were able to expand beyond the initially planned one month, to also include May.

For photographer and painter Thurein, this was his first opportunity to create an installation of this size. Thurein’s installation “End to End” featured clippings of hundreds of obituaries taken from Burmese newspapers and layered carefully over the walls of the house. Though it may be possible to glue newspaper clippings on the walls in other galleries, Thurein says putting up obituaries would likely be seen as an insult. “It’s like creating a house of death,” he says.

Thurein, like Mrat Lunn Htwann, is keen to push boundaries with his art, and says that though there is now more freedom to do so, many artists remain hesitant to take the opportunity. “Fear is ingrained in our minds,” he says.

7000 Padauk has represented both Burmese and international artists, and was able to provide financial support for artists traveling to Rangoon from other states.

San Naing, a Muslim artist from Arakan State, traveled to create five large, colorful abstract paintings, now on display in the upper floor of the gallery. His piece “Praying for Peace” is particularly evocative, given the recent inter-communal violence in Arakan.

Perhaps the most fascinating exhibit was “Roses are Red,” an anonymous collection of vintage Burmese erotic photographs, emailed to 7000 Padauk with instructions detailing how the images should be displayed. The beautiful black and white pictures are at once challenging and dreamy, and provoke questions around the nature of sexual freedom in Burma.

Despite the clear success of the gallery and enthusiasm from both artists and the public, creating an uncensored space like 7000 Padauk means coming up close against local authorities. For the founders and artists at 7000 Padauk, this is as much an experiment in creativity as it is an experiment in finding out what they can and can’t do under the new government.

Pushing against these boundaries is not without consequences. When 7000 Padauk was first set up, there were threats and advice not to go ahead, and a group of police officers visited the gallery last Saturday to photograph and document the art works.

Even so, Mrat Lunn Htwann and Johnston are resolute to continue what they see as a vital project. “It was always worth going ahead, no matter the risk,” says Johnston. “We had to test the boundaries of this ‘Reformation’ in Myanmar.”

7000 Padauk is open until the first week of June, and upcoming events will be announced via the gallery’s Facebook page. A documentary about the local area and community of 7000 Padauk will screen at Rangoon’s River Gallery on Tuesday. The photographer Nyi Myo Wai, who has documented the birth and short life of the art space, will exhibit a selection of his prints in the last week as a finale to what has been an extraordinary project.

When asked their plans for the future, both Mrat Lunn Htwann and Johnston say it they would like to find another space. An online platform Myanmar Art Evolution has been set up to announce contemporary Burmese art events, and a catalogue of the exhibitions is being produced. But for now, they will take things step by step and, as Johnston says, “7000 Padauk will crop up in other creative ways in years to come.”