Late for Nowhere

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Armed with a ballpoint pen

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Hlaw Myint Swe sketch 1

Also published in last week’s Weekend magazine: an update of a story I wrote last year about Yangon-based artist Hla Myint Swe:


Since 2006 Hla Myint Swe has published nearly 10 large-format books filled with pen sketches and photographs of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities.

Despite his prolific output, he does not consider himself a true artist, but rather “an amateur with a profound interest in drawing and photography”. This self-perception, he confesses, stems primarily from his lack of formal training in the arts. But he has made up for this by demonstrating persistence and natural talent from an early age, first by teaching himself to draw by copying pictures and photographs from books.

Born in Bhamo, Kachin State, in 1948, Hla Myint Swe met his first art teacher, U Lu Tin, while attending St Peter’s High School in Mandalay in 1965. U Lu Tin often assigned his students to paint landscapes, but Hla Myint Swe preferred figure drawing, and so instead of focusing on the scenery, he drew side-view portraits of his fellow students as they worked.

Hla Myint Swe spent only six months learning from U Lu Tin. After graduating from high school he entered the Defence Services Academy and stayed in the Army for 26 years, from 1966 to 1992. It was while serving as a soldier that he became interested in drawing ethnic minorities.

“When I was in the Army, I had to go to the front lines in Kachin State and Shan State. At that time I had to meet with so many tribes,” he said in an interview last week with The Myanmar Times. “I was a soldier, so I had no chance to carry brushes or painting supplies. I had only a ballpoint pen and some pieces of paper, so I made sketches of the people, the villages, the scenes. I’m very fond of the tribes.”

In 1992 Hla Myint Swe left the Army and took a job with Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). He continued sketching but abandoned his ballpoint in favor of proper drawing pens and quality ink.

As part of his YCDC work, he edited several coffee-table photography books, including Yangon: The Garden City (1995) and Shwedagon: Symbol of Strength and Serenity (1997).

Working with photographers on these projects piqued his own interest in photography. Whereas previously he had used his camera for family snapshots, he now started utilizing it as a means of capturing the infinitely varied faces of Myanmar’s ethnic people, which he later sketched from the photographs.

In the preface to his 2010 collection Pen Sketches of Artist Hla Myint Swe: Nature and Social Life Features of Myanmar, he wrote that he strives to preserve those fleeting moments when people’s facial expressions reveal their “inner lives”.

“I am drawing not only faces. I want to catch the mind of the figure,” he said in last week’s interview. “Faces are easy to draw, but their minds, what they are thinking caught in their facial expressions, I want to catch this.”

He added that he often uses a zoom lens to take photographs from a distance so the subject’s thoughts are not distracted by the presence of the camera.

Hla Myint Swe retired from YCDC in 2012 but maintains a private office in the compound of City FM, which he helped establish in 2001. He continues to dedicate much of his free time to his artwork.

“Every day I draw. If you come to my office I have no time to draw. If you leave my office, I will draw at my desk. All the time I am drawing,” he said.

In recent years he has published several hardcover photography books such as Paragon: Exotic Cultural Heritage Beauties of Myanmar (2011) and Homeland: Traditional Culture and Customs of Myanmar Ethnics (2014).

Each of the five or six chapters in these books represents a particular region of Myanmar. Last year he also released the first in a planned series of less-expensive paperback books, each covering a single area of the country. They are aimed at tourists who might be reluctant to purchase a heavy, expensive hardcover while traveling. The first, Moenei-Namsan: Beauties of the Nature (2014), was originally a chapter in Homeland.

Despite his favored subject matter, Hla Myint Swe prefers not to use his books as a means of wading into debates about ethnic identity in Myanmar.

“In parliament, some tribes are disputing or discussing about their rights. There are so many new tribes. In Naga there are more than 60 clans. So many dialects, languages, cultures, with just a little bit of difference,” he said. “I don’t want to write about these issues directly because maybe there will be problems. I mention the tribes only in the areas where I travel.”

At the same time, he said he hopes his work can serve to remind people of the tremendous depth and breadth of cultures within the borders of Myanmar.

“I believe I’m serving an educational purpose by teaching my brethren about the diversity of the country, and they will be inspired to help forge a more peaceful union,” he said. “If my art and photography can play a role in working toward peace and reconciliation among ethnic groups, I would be delighted.”


Written by latefornowhere

April 3, 2015 at 1:16 am

Posted in Art

Tagged with ,

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