Mandalay’s New Day

By Virginia Henderson 10 August 2013

Voluptuous and provocative, she sure is. Suu Myint Thein’s huge sculpture of a strong nude woman, perching precariously on the roof of the kooky art center on 69th Street is becoming a Mandalay icon—a celebrated symbol of freedom of expression and equality.

For 10 years she lay on the floor of a workshop at the Mandalay School of Art, covered with cloth and hidden from government advisors visiting to check on Suu Myint Thein’s unconventional teaching at the institution. When the passionate art instructor eventually left the state system, he set out to forge an alternative path and follow his dream of reaching outside the city walls and teaching children to express their ideas and feelings through art.

The Mandalay Contemporary Art Centre (MCAC), which opened in March of last year, is a humming vibrant space with an extraordinary capacity to inspire and reach children. A successful partnership between AlinDagar Art School, Suu Myint Thein’s own art school where he has taught summer intensive classes for 21 years, and the Dreamland Art Studio, created by artist Kyan Lee and her husband Arr Lone, MCAC brings together dedicated art trainers and supporters with many years’ experience. The new artspace works on the underlying conditions for artistic freedom of expression, including addressing the lack of arts education in communities and schools. An active meeting place for young and old curious about art, MCAC explores the key theme of “art and politics” through innovative workshops and exhibitions with young people.

Bold art education outreach programs take the MCAC team to villages near and far from Mandalay, enabling thousands of young rural people to experience the wonders of art through stimulating and engaging activities. Many of the children had never done any art in their lives. The Colorful Light International Children’s Art workshop and exhibition continues to grow, following road trips to Kyauk Mae, Lashio, Hsipaw and Nam Kham in Shan State, Myittha in Mandalay Region and Zi Gon in Bago Region. Large crowds of Shan, Kayin, Palaung, Danu, Myanmar and Chinese children and their parents participated in the drawing, painting and performance art activities, producing their own artworks which were exhibited, documented and shared at other venues. These days MCAC is being urged by the locals themselves to visit more towns, to come back soon, and to share their extraordinary teaching skills and approaches.

Suu Myint Thein explains: “For a long time, it’s been my dream to go to many towns where the children have never been exposed to art. It was the first time they had done any drawing. The children thought that the artworks by kids overseas were great but then they did the workshop and saw their own work and realized their potential. They said to themselves, “I can do it!” The seed is planted for the future—for us to become an art college for kids.”

MCAC’s public performance art events have also attracted hundreds of participants. Supporting the revival and reinterpretation of traditional arts, during the Thingyan New Year’s festival in April, MCAC performed with the country’s first female Thangyat (traditional poetry and song) group, the Tamaryeit Women’s Group, on stages around Mandalay.

In August of last year, former political prisoner Htein Lin, who now resides in the UK, worked with MCAC in a performance art workshop on freedom of expression, culminating in 12 public performances and outreach activities at a local monastery and monastic school.

Although he is known chiefly as a sculptor, Suu Myint Thein is also a highly respected painter and performance artist. In his Blue Man for Peace performance last September, he took to the streets completely wrapped in blue tape, walking slowly, saying nothing, but in doing so generating enormous public interest.

Curious crowds followed the artist until he was stopped by the police and taken to the station for creating a disturbance. Police told Suu Myint Thein they took him away for his own health, to protect him from exhaustion and the crowd. MCAC’s artistic director reported overhearing people saying things like, “That’s strange,” “He’s mad,” and “It’s some kind of art”.

The outcome? Another successful challenge to the people, encouraging them to question and explore new ways of being and expressing ideas and feelings. Mission accomplished, for MCAC. And so it goes, seeking to push the boundaries of conventional thinking to create alternatives.

People who took part in Suu Myint Thein’s Creative Art Workshop at MCAC every Wednesday from February to April 2013 said they had been given the chance, for the first time in their lives, to question teachers, discuss free expression and open their minds. They valued the new conversations and encouragement to explore alternative modes of expression. At the end-of-workshop group exhibition, “A Flight of Free Thoughts and Colors,” in early June, the new artists were able to speak about the social and political messages in their bold and expressive artworks.

Student Ko George explained:

“These three months have been so strange. I can feel again. I got the smell; I got the feeling. Before that, I had lost my social life, like many my age in this country. We are alive again. My life is so positive, now we can write again. We can see the future more clearly. I see good things.”

This story first appeared in the August 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.