In Postcards, Movie Posters and Paintings, an Alternative Look at Burma’s Past

By Samantha Michaels 11 May 2013

RANGOON — From the front entrance, the dilapidated building that houses  Pansodan Art Gallery in downtown Rangoon seems nondescript: a concrete staircase rises steeply, the walls faded and stained with watermarks. But just one floor up, the stairwell’s chipped white paint gives way to a display of colorful art decals—child-like renderings of a tree, a handprint, a heart—and a door leads to an even quirkier, at times rare, trove of local treasures.

Scattered in back rooms of the gallery, a collection of book covers from before World War II feature Burmese models dressed like Western pin-up girls; original photographs from decades ago show the first prime minister from the independence era, ethnic minority leaders from the 1947 Panglong Conference, and the mother of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi; and piles upon piles of postcards, movie posters and propaganda ads, saved from the days of the former military regime, offer an unusual look into Burma’s long-shrouded past.

In a country where public libraries and museums are either nonexistent or neglected after half a century of military rule, the owner of this collection—Burmese art and book patron Aung Soe Min—has taken it upon himself to unearth decades of cultural and political history on his own, storing the artifacts in his gallery and at homes in Rangoon after digging them up in unexpectedly ordinary places.

“People have documents they throw out on the street as trash, but we find value in them,” the 42-year-old told The Irrawaddy recently. “Sometimes if famous artists or politicians pass away and their families can’t keep all their things, they sell.

“People keep things in their homes for a long time but have no system to organize them, like me. In fact, it’s very difficult to maintain them,” he adds, glancing at stacks of framed paintings and posters as he walks around the gallery.

After decades of collecting, Aung Soe Min has earned a reputation for his efforts. In addition to his gallery, his library of books is rumored to be among the biggest in the country, attracting scholars and researchers from around the world.

“They come from Yale and Harvard, from universities in Japan, Thailand, France and many countries,” he said. “I have thousands of books, all kinds, and not just that—the main thing I collect is documents, originally documents related to Burmese history. I store them in four houses, I can’t keep count.”

The Road to Rangoon

Aung Soe Min’s thirst for art and literature stems from a childhood with little access to either. He grew up in a small central Burma town near the ancient city of Pagan during the Socialist era of former dictator Gen Ne Win, who isolated Burma from the international community after seizing power in the 1960s.

“All the time we were hunting for books,” he said of his childhood. “Later, during the 1988 [pro-democracy] movement, because our country had been closed off for so long, a lot of people my age—I was about 17—lacked exposure to information about the history of Burma and the world. I wanted to fill that gap.”

He started by founding a newspaper and small library in his hometown, and by doing his best to spread information during the pro-democracy movement—an activity that earned him the honor of being the first person arrested in his town before the 1988 protests. After Burma’s general election in 1990, he moved to Rangoon, got a job as a magazine editor and co-founded a book publishing house with friends.

As a publisher and editor, Aung Soe Min became friends with many of the city’s artists, who largely made a living by drawing illustrations for books and magazines. But in the late 1990s, he said, Rangoon’s publishing market began declining rapidly, in part because movies became more accessible, and artists lost their jobs as magazines went out of business.

“Many magazines could not survive anymore, so the artists had nowhere to publish their illustrations,” he said. “Instead, they started focusing more on their own artwork.”

Art for Burma

In 2000, Aung Soe Min started collecting photographs, rare prints and paintings, and several years later he opened up his own art gallery, one of only a few in the city back then. At the time, most galleries catered to the tourist market, selling works of well-known artists and neglecting the local audience.

“The art catalogues were all in English, the prices were all in dollars, and it was illegal for Burmese people to hold US dollars at that time,” said Nance Cunningham, who co-founded the gallery in 2008.

Aung Soe Min took a different approach, giving a platform to local artists who had worked for years as illustrators but were less known in the market, and also to younger artists working in new styles.

“We had about 200 artists in the beginning, coming from many different places like Kachin, Rakhine [Arakan] and Mon states, to give their paintings,” he said. “From the beginning we had thousands of paintings.”

You’ll find him there most days now, in the gallery on Pansodan Street, about a 10-minute walk east of Aung San Market. In the open entrance room, he sits cross-legged on the bench of a wooden table, surrounded by dozens of local artists and colorful contemporary paintings. A newly finished canvas sits on an easel in the corner, a guitar rests against a wall, and a piano near the door is topped with rusty lanterns and small statues.

The gallery has many functions: It’s a space to showcase the works of local painters, to store some of Aung Soe Min’s unusual artifacts, and to host a weekly gathering of dozens of Burmese intellectuals, writers and artists, along with some foreign researchers and expats, on Tuesday nights.

“In the beginning it was maybe just five or 10 people each week, but now maybe 50 to 100 people come for each gathering,” he says. “We want to welcome people from all levels of society, whether poor or young or rich. We want to be inclusive.”

He says his highest-selling year was his first, in 2008.

“That’s understandable,” he says. “In the past four years, 10 more galleries have opened, so they’ve taken a share of the local market. But I think we can all work, since the market is growing.”

A  Visual History, Uncensored

During the gallery’s early days, before the military regime gave way to a nominally civilian government in 2010, Aung Soe Min and Cunningham were also forced to welcome members of the country’s now-disbanded censorship board, who would come before exhibit openings to decide which paintings could not be shown.

“Censorship limited what artists could create, so that was always a problem,” he said. “But for us, the censors didn’t really pay that much attention to the art. They thought of art as something that just hangs in your home. Writers, filmmakers and musicians were more oppressed because their works were more publicized.”

Under the new government, Aung Soe Min no longer deals with censors and aims to go more public with his collection in a book project. The goal is to publish three separate books with images from his collection, including one with propaganda art, another with advertising, and a third with postcards.

Speaking about the project, he pulls out pieces from his collection: a hand-painted postcard from 1900 that shows Burmese boys playing cane ball near a monastery; a painting of a British leader in a small Burmese town under colonialism; and photos of Burmese intellectuals from the Socialist era.

“I want to get an alternative history,” he says. “Everything we’re learning is just the standard history from the government, and nobody is doing research properly yet in many fields—history, literature, the media. We can do a history of newspapers properly, or even a history of comic books— I collect comic books, too.”

Unlike the paintings on display at his gallery, however, these artifacts are not for sale. “Some of these things are very rare, and if it’s one-of-a kind, it’s important for history and we won’t sell it,” he says, adding that the public is welcome to look through his collection at the gallery or even in his homes, which he often opens up to visiting researchers.

“I’m no expert in libraries, but I’m trying to keep these things in some way, trying to help until we can give these materials to a responsible organization or open a museum,” he says.

Or maybe several museums, he adds: “My main vision is that later on I want to open a museum in every town in Burma.”

He has already opened museums showcasing local art at two locations, including his hometown, and with the help of friends he hopes to expand his reach over the next decade. “I want every village to know where they come from, what is their specialty, their identity, so they can value themselves and be happy how they’re different. This is one way to build local democracy, through art.”