Artist U Marlar, Favorite of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Dies of COVID-19

By The Irrawaddy 24 August 2021

Artist U Marlar, a favorite of detained State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, died of COVID-19 on Aug. 20. He was 68.

Nearly 50 artists have died of COVID-19 during Myanmar’s third wave of coronavirus infections, most of them in July.

Mandalay-based artist U Marlar was known for his watercolors depicting Myanmar culture and traditions. He graduated from the State School of Fine Arts in Mandalay and served as an instructor there for 10 years.

Driven by his keen interest in archaeological research, U Marlar’s paintings often focused on historical locations in Myanmar. He spent nine years working at the Mandalay Department of Archaeology, where he studied the paintings, sculptures and murals created from the Bagan to the Konbaung dynasties. He founded the Myanmar Watercolor Artists Association in 2013.

Myanmar’s art circles were filled with excitement when then State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi curated U Marlar’s art exhibition “Shades of Art, Colors of Inspiration” in July 2016.  The title was chosen by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi herself and the exhibition showcased watercolor works depicting the mode of dress of Myanmar women in the late Konbaung Dynasty.

The exhibition in Yangon was attended by National League for Democracy patron U Tin Oo, then Religious Affairs and Culture Minister U Aung Ko and Yangon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi bought 19 of 30 paintings on display and U Marlar presented her with a painting as a gift.

Then State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (third from right) attends the opening of ‘Shades of Art, Colors of Inspiration’, an exhibition of works by artist U Marlar (second from right), at the National Museum of Myanmar in Yangon in 2016.

One month before the art exhibition, U Marlar was commissioned by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to create a painting based on “Beida Lan” (or Hyacinth’s Way), a famous poem by one of Myanmar’s greatest poets, Saya Zawgyi. The poem depicts a water hyacinth’s passage up and down a river to illustrate the theme of resilience in the face of hardship.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who spent nearly 15 years in detention between 1989 and 2010 under military rule and escaped an assassination attempt by the previous military regime, told U Marlar that her life bore parallels to the “Beida Lan” poem. U Marlar completed the painting in 10 days, after which Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked him if he had any plan to organize a solo art exhibition, leading to the “Shades of Art, Colors of Inspiration” exhibition.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is herself an art enthusiast. A painting she created while under house arrest drew an offer of US$150,000 at an auction in 2016. However, the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, a philanthropic organization founded by the NLD, declined to sell it and instead kept it for its collection. Before her detention, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also commissioned other artists to draw pictures for her and visited art exhibitions when she had time.

The military regime removed the State Counselor’s possessions from her Naypyitaw residence in early August, six months after the February coup. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s personal art collection was among the items that were removed to an unknown location.

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