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Painting Amid the Ancient Ruins of Mrauk-U

Steve Tickner The Irrawaddy

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MRAUK-U, Arakan State — Arakanese artist, Shwe Maung Thar does not have to wander far from his ‘Lamitie’ art studio to find inspiration for his favorite subject, Arakanese landscapes and culture.

His studio and home sit amongst the ancient Buddhist pagodas and temples of Mrauk-U, the old capital of the Arakan kingdom, which flourished from the early 15th century until 1785, when a Burmese king conquered the region.

Shwe Maung Thar, or S.M.T. as he likes to be called, has a lifetime’s worth of experience in arts and belongs to the traditional school of landscape painting, drawing much inspiration from the French impressionists of the 19th century.

His work is reminiscent of the soft pastel tones of Monet and Cezanne and he admires Australian Post-Impressionist landscape artists Sir Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts.

“I mostly like painting still lifes and landscapes,” he said, during a recent interview in Mrauk-U town.

“As a student I travelled to Rangoon and studied under Say Kyaw Lin and in 1995 I began further training under Win Pe Myint, who I still see as my master. He schooled me further in oil painting techniques,” he said.

Although S.M.T. enjoys working with oil paint, quality paints and materials are hard to find in Burma and he often uses oil crayons to produce his work.

Like for many people in Arakan State, the inter-communal violence that erupted there one year ago has also touched S.M.T.’s life. Tourist visits to Mrauk-U have largely stopped and his gallery has had very few customers since, leading to a drop in sales of his work.

“Because of recent bad events I don’t receive many visitors or tourists anymore. However, some Burmese still like to collect my art and come visit from time to time,” he said.

S.M.T. believes art and politics should not mix and is reluctant to comment on the divisive sectarian tensions that have ripped through Arakan State. “I don’t believe that artists should be involved in politics,” he said when asked for his opinion.

Although he has not had an exhibition inside Burma since 2009, in the past he enjoyed giving at least one exhibition a year, usually in Rangoon, often in collaboration with his former teachers, Win Pe Myint and Say Kyaw Lin.

His son, Khine Min Tun, has followed in his father’s footsteps and become an accomplished landscape and portrait artist in his own right.

S.M.T.’s reputation abroad has also grown over the years. In 2005, he exhibited in the Australian capital Canberra, and again in Melbourne in 2007 under patronage of former Australian Ambassador to Burma Trevor Wilson.

However, due to the political environment in Burma at the time he was prevented from attending his Australian exhibitions.

In 2011, he drew great inspiration from a trip to Europe, which included a trip to Vienna, Austria, where he visited the Zacke Art Gallery, and later the Musee d’Orsay Art gallery in Paris.

S.M.T says one advantage of the decline in tourists since the inter-communal conflict began has been that he and his son have now accumulated a great deal of as yet unseen work.

This year he has an exhibition of his work planned in Berlin, Germany, in December, and he hopes to once again begin showing his art in Rangoon soon.