Rangoon Artists Show Decades of Woe

By Steve Tickner 8 November 2012

An intriguing exhibition has brought together a total of 75 contributing artists, 20 of whom belong to the renowned Gangaw Village Artist Group, along with many past and contemporary painters.

Based at the University Christian Center on Rangoon’s Pyay Road—opposite the renowned and sometimes controversial Rangoon University—the Gangaw Village Artist Group contains former and current students and teachers in the collective.

“Gangaw” is the Burmese term for a distinctive yellow flower, prolific on the university grounds, and long recognized as a potent symbol of this socially significant seat of learning.

Many of the contributing artists are themselves former political prisoners and dissidents, and the theme for this collection encompasses the long-derelict Rangoon University and its turbulent history, which has so deeply been connected to Burma’s struggle towards democracy.

Censorship under the former military government extended deep into Burmese society, with poets, artists and writers all suffering at the hands of the recently axed censorship board.

The exhibition’s subject matter would have been forbidden just one year ago, yet as Burma continues to throw off the shackles of half-a-century of military rule, the emerging contemporary art scene is seizing its new-found freedom with both hands.

Works range across a broad variety of styles, subject matters and techniques. The former Students Union building may have been physically destroyed in 1962, yet its specter remains strong in the psyche of many alumni. Equally, portraiture of student and political leaders, such as Bo Aung Kyaw and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, feature prominently.

Contributing artist Htay Htay Myint, a longtime member of the Gangaw Village collective, tells of the frustration and danger experienced by anyone wishing to openly express themselves in the decades preceding this year’s remarkable easing of social restrictions.

She said the exhibition filled her with both joy and sorrow. “Happiness that Burmese artists can now express themselves openly and freely on a wide range of subjects, and sadness at the many difficulties of the past,” said the artist, who also goes by the name Khin Mya Zin.

Htay Htay Myint tells of life under former Dictator Ne Win, whose name means “sunshine” or “sunrise,” and who would allow paintings of daybreak but banned anything representing a sunset. At the same time, even particular colors were considered subversive.

“Abstract paintings were not allowed to have shades of black, green or red,” she said. “To the government of the time black might represent opposition, green the much-loathed Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] and red represented violence or blood.”

Htay Htay Myint also tells a poignant story a female artist friend whose work was confiscated from an exhibition, and when later returned had been ruined with stamps from the censorship board filling every available space. Her friend became so distraught over the soul-destroying damage to her work that she never painted again.

The Exhibition takes place at The University Union Christian Center, on Pyay Road opposite the Justin Convocation Hall, until Friday. Entrance is free.