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Nearly 90, Burmese Painter Can’t Put Down the Brush

Kyaw Phyo Tha The Irrawaddy

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RANGOON — Sitting in a deck chair with a clipboard set on his lap, Thet Nyunt paints whatever comes to mind, in watercolor, acrylic, or oil pastel.

“I’m keen on painting landscapes,” says the 87-year-old artist while adding the silhouette of a tree to the background of a countryside scene he is working on. Surrounding him on various canvases, his bright and colorful strokes capture the tranquil beauty of Burma, a country steeped in Buddhist culture.

“I can’t help but paint,” he says with laugh. “If not, I would have withdrawal symptoms.”

Contrary to many people in their advanced age, the Burmese artist is still rigorously pursuing his lifelong profession. Every day, he spends most of his time in his forecourt studio, making final touches to the previous day’s undertaking or etching sketches for his next painting—and in the process, establishing himself as one of the country’s oldest and most prolific artists.

“I’ve never met anyone who could churn out paintings like him, especially in their old ages,” said fellow artist Kyaw Nyunt, who has known Thet Nyunt for more than 50 years. “His works are commercially successful as well.”

The relatively young 71-year-old artist was not exaggerating. Thet Nyunt’s house in suburban Rangoon could easily be mistaken for an art gallery, with two-thirds of his 20-foot-by-60-foot home dedicated to showcasing the man’s art.

Kyaw Nyunt explained that Thet Nyunt is one of a few contemporary painters still alive and kicking who are inspired by Burmese masters like Ba Nyan and Ngwe Gaing, who both had great influence on art generations to follow by introducing Western techniques to Burmese artists under British colonial rule.

Hailing from Mon State in southern Burma, Thet Nyunt had compulsory drawing and painting lessons at school as a child. He later became an apprentice of Hla Maung Gyi, who himself drew influence from Ngwe Gaing.

In spite of his passion for painting, the form of artistic expression that Thet Nyunt took to in his youth was music. He used to play the violin and guitar at movie theaters, providing live background music for silent films in his hometown of Mudon.

“Music is my first love,” he admitted. But his love affair with music came to an abrupt end in 1988, with his son Min Ko Naing and Burma’s military junta to blame.

“It’s very inappropriate to play music while your son is in jail,” he explained, referring to his son’s lengthy imprisonmentfor his active role in the 1988 popular uprising that nearly toppled the country’s dictatorship. Min Ko Naing, the most prominent former student leader from Burma’s 88 Generation Students group, has been arrested three times and spent 21 years behind bars in prisons across Burma since 1988.

Even though his son is now out of jail, Thet Nyunt has found that he can no longer play even the simplest of melodies on the instruments he loves, which now hang untouched on his living room wall.

“It has been 25 years now and I’m simply out of practice,” he said.

In 1951, Thet Nyunt made painting his professional calling. Though landscapes were his preferred subject, he did portraits of diplomats and their families for several foreign embassies in Rangoon.

He has had four solo shows so far, with the latest one in Mandalay last month.

“I’m satisfied with the fact that I can support my family with what I earn and we have a decent living,” he said.

These days, Thet Nyunt divides his daily routine between painting and meditation, the latter of which he has practiced for 37 years. For nearly four decades, he said it has helped him suffer less through the ups and downs of life, especially when it comes to his son. Thanks to meditation, Thet Nyunt said he jfeels no hatred toward the people responsible for his son’s lengthy imprisonment.

“The meditation I’ve practiced for years makes me able to contemplate that everything is impermanent, suffering and non-self,” the devout Buddhist explained. “It’s a great relief for me to realize nothing will surely happen in the way that I want. It’s the same for my son’s case: I neither feel sad nor happy about him.”

That is not to say he has no affection for his son.

“I worry about him whenever he takes trips,” Thet Nyunt said while Min Ko Naing was on tour in Malaysia earlier this month. “I pray for his safety.”

Thet Nyunt said he is glad to see many people’s admiration for his son—a fan base that he admitted he would not mind himself.

“As an artist, I’m afraid of being disliked,” he said.

Asked about the Burmese art scene today, the veteran painter said he is pleased with younger artists’ efforts to strike a balance between innovation and an awareness of ongoing international art trends.

“They are smart,” he said. “We [Thet Nyunt’s generation] are becoming oldies who stick to their old styles.”

Nay Myo Say, one of Burma’s foremost contemporary painters and owner of nearly a dozen of Thet Nyunt’s works, said he appreciates the old artist’s paintings for their ability to depict the distinct features of Burmese culture and draw viewers’ attention.

“His pictures are quite Burmese, especially when he paints countryside scenes,” he added.

At the grand old age of 87—and to the envy of some people half of his age—Thet Nyunt still enjoys good health. He has no hypertension, no diabetes, no loss of vision. Asked by The Irrawaddy if there’s any secret to his long life and vitality, he offered up a theory.

“Yes, I’ve never drunk [alcohol],” he said, “and partly because I used to do physical exercises seriously when I was young.”

“He’s amazingly healthy and still full of energy to paint,” Nay Myo Say said. “I really want to be like him.”