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‘Art is limitless’

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Ma Ei 1

Ma Ei cuts ginger during her Period performance art piece at Gallery 65, Yangon, in October 2015.

On October 2015, artist Ma Ei staged a performance piece at Yangon’s Gallery 65 that was highly unusual for Myanmar: For three days, she made herself the center of a public display focusing on menstruation.

During the performance, titled Period, the 37-year-old artist occupied a room in the gallery that was bathed in blood-red light, furnished with a bed, desk and chair, and decorated with posters featuring handwritten lists of symptoms of menstruation and ways to relieve them. Wearing a nightgown, she talked, slept and handed out sanitary pads to visitors. She brewed fresh ginger tea – said to induce menstruation and relieve cramps – which she shared with audience members.

All of this in a country where menstruation remains a taboo subject and a source of shame for women who have not been given the opportunity to learn differently. Indeed, such is the state of sex education – a term commonly avoided in favor of euphemisms like “daily healthcare” or “family education” – that even the neutral clinical word “vagina” is considered vulgar.

At the time of the performance, Ma Ei said her aim was to encourage people to talk about women’s bodies and sexuality, and, as she told The Myanmar Times, to “help men understand how women feel when they are on their period”.

During her career as a performance artist, which started in 2008, Ma Ei has not shied away from controversy, thriving on confrontational pieces that can make some viewers feel uncomfortable.

She is among the growing number of women who are establishing reputations as invaluable contributors to Myanmar’s evolving art scene. The youngest are now benefiting from the struggles of pioneering women who have spent years fighting against gender discrimination in the art world.

Among these courageous innovators is Phyu Mon, 53, a conceptual artist whose diverse talents include painting, digital photography, performance and poetry. She is also organizer of the Blue Wind Multimedia Festival, inaugurated in 2010 as the first women’s art festival in Myanmar.

Phyu Mon began painting in her hometown of Katha, Sagaing Region, when she was 10 years old. Due to the town’s remoteness, few art books were available, and there were no artists in town except for her teacher, Katha Ba Thaung.

“Katha Ba Thaung taught me about impressionism and expressionism, and repeatedly reminded me to never stop learning because art is limitless,” Phyu Mon said. She later attended Mandalay University in the hope that it would expand her creative horizons, but what she mostly encountered were people who looked down on the few women artists at the university.

“As female artists, we were ignored by teachers and accused of going against traditional culture. We were told we were not ‘elegant’ women,” she said.

It didn’t help that male artists refused to offer support, and even seemed to be afraid of the women.

“I asked if I could accompany a group of male artists when they went outside to make landscape paintings, because I also wanted to make beautiful art based on the environment,” she said. “I told them I didn’t mind that they drank alcohol while they painted, which was something that other women didn’t like. But the men didn’t allow me to follow because they felt confused about working alongside women artists.”

Phyu Mon added that “cultural pressure is the biggest devil of female artists in Myanmar. It can destroy your career and drive you to become a normal housewife.”

However, she said that in recent years the situation has improved for women as new ideas have been introduced to Myanmar through cultural exchanges, including workshops run locally by international artists.

“It’s easy for female artists to get depressed from all the cultural pressure, but now there are ways for us to fight these feelings by studying new art forms and holding discussions at workshops. But we still need more art education,” Phyu Mon said.

Khin Than Phyu, 64, publisher and chief editor of Art in Myanmar magazine, said she had trouble convincing her parents to allow her to take art classes at night while attending Yangon University in the late 1970s.

“At that time, even men were belittled for being artists. They were thought of as people with no income – not even enough food – who wasted their time making nonsensical things,” she said, adding that for women the situation was even worse. “Everyone said women should not be artists, and that we should not go outside to paint with male artists.”

Still, Khin Than Phyu persisted, inspired by groundbreaking women such as illustrator Nang Nang and painter Ma Thanegi, who shattered the taboo against women artists working outdoors. Others who challenged the male monopoly on the visual arts were Daw Tin Tin San, Daw Khin Myint Myint and Daw Nwe Nwe Yee.

“I continued because I had been interested in drawing since I was young. My favorite subject was biology because I loved the lessons where we drew pictures of organic cells,” she said.

She later honed her skills by copying portraits from books and magazines, and then developed an impressionistic style because, she explained, she was “not good at realism”. She was invited to participate in several group exhibitions, and held her first solo show in 1993. She has also developed an interest in environmental issues, and now makes mixed-media works by using real sand on the canvas to create coastal scenes.

Khin Than Phyu said there are now many young female artists in Myanmar who are able to study without discrimination and who are dedicated to their own creative ideas.

“In the past, women could not really push new ideas because of the tension surrounding their presence in the art world, but today it’s totally different. There are more women with different ideas and different artistic qualities,” she said.

But she added that the pressure for women artists to fit into traditionally accepted roles has not completely disappeared.

“Most women artists are busier than men because people still think they should be good housewives, so they try to balance their domestic chores with their art,” Khin Than Phyu said.

Among Khin Than Phyu’s inspirations as a young artist was Daw Nwe Nwe Yee, now 76 years old and working as an art and religion teacher at the Indonesian embassy in Yangon. In December 2015 she organized an exhibition of works by 132 women artists from around the country.

Like the other women interviewed for this story, Daw Nwe Nwe Yee developed an interest in art when she was very young. “I was always punished in school for drawing pictures throughout my exercise books, and sometimes on my friends’ books,” she said.

She also fought with her parents to win permission to study art, and when she attended school in Yangon she faced familiar forms of discrimination from people who said women should not be artists.

“Everyone said women need to stay inside the home and do their chores, but many of us were working outside too. There are many female teachers, engineers, vendors, et cetera, but under our culture we also need to finish our housework and be perfect parents for our children,” she said.

Daw Nwe Nwe Yee found a way to combine her passion for drawing with cultural expectations by using watercolors and acrylics to create still-life paintings of objects around her house.

But this delicate balancing act has not always gone smoothly.

“My husband is also an artist, and one evening during our early married days he was out of the house and I was in the kitchen cooking. The rice pot was on the stove and I was waiting for the water to boil, when my attention was caught by a lawkanat [prince of peace] statue that we had received as a wedding gift, which was sitting on the cupboard. I needed to draw it at once, so I got out my canvas and paints, and focused on the sculpture,” she said.

“I finished my drawing around the time my husband returned. I showed him my new work and he was glad to see it, but then I remembered the rice pot. All the water had boiled away and the rice was a black mess.”

What was bad for dinner that night turned out to be good for Daw Nwe Nwe Yee’s art career: She sold the drawing to a publishing house that used it in a calendar. The image was reproduced many times, and was copied by many artists. Such was the drawing’s fame that Daw Nwe Nwe Yee became known by the nickname Lawkanat.

In addition to her artwork – and domestic chores – Daw Nwe Nwe Yee also enjoyed a 30-year career as an art teacher in government schools, a job from which she has now retired. It allowed her to witness firsthand the gradual growth in the number of female art students.

“Now at the National University of Arts and Culture there are more female students than male students,” she said.

“I think women artists are entering a new period of creativity. I’m glad to know that the young generation enjoys a better situation than I did for learning and honing their creative talent. Many of them still face the stress of fitting in with cultural expectations, but more and more they are learning to relax and see the world with reborn minds.”

Ma Ei 2

This story was originally published in the February 19-25 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine. Interviews with artists were conducted in Myanmar language by reporter Nyein Ei Ei Htwe, who also translated them into English.

MT.Women artists 2016 February 19


Written by latefornowhere

February 27, 2016 at 3:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized