Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Creating the design from the details

leave a comment »


“The Silver Set” by Tin Aung Kyaw

French novelist Gustave Flaubert once said that anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.

That’s the idea behind an exhibition titled The Details opening at the Yangon Gallery on September 16, featuring photorealist and hyperrealist paintings by eight local artists.

The participating artists include Myoe Thant Oung, Aye Nyein Myint, Aung Thiha, Aung Myin Baw, Tin Aung Kyaw, Aung Htoo, Khine Minn Soe and Myo Min Latt.

“All of their art is about ordinary objects and scenery that we see on a daily basis,” curator Lynn Whut Hmone said. “But they focus on the details and they show it in a way that we’ve never seen before, which makes us appreciate the little things around us.”

As an example, she cited Aung Htoo, who makes paintings of household objects made of steel.

“Aung Htoo’s paintings are so detailed that you can see the little scratch marks on the steel utensils he paints. You don’t notice them even when you’re eating, but it looks beautiful in the paintings,” she said.

Lynn Whut Hmone made a distinction between photorealism – which simply seeks to re-create an image in the way it would be seen in a photograph – and hyperrealism, in which artists use photorealism as a reference but inject additional emotion into the artwork.

“There is more to hyperrealism. The artist puts more feeling into it and tries to show something beyond just representing the reality,” she said.

One painting in the exhibition that treads the line between these two types of art is Tin Aung Kyaw’s “The Silver Set”, an extremely meticulous painting that took the artist about 200 hours to complete. While the silver objects are rendered in photorealist detail, the semi-abstract background gives the artwork a somber, almost gothic, feel.

“It took me a while to figure out about the background because I wanted something that wouldn’t disturb the silver set yet was interesting in its own way,” Tin Aung Kyaw said. “I wanted the viewer to feel something when they looked at the painting.”

Artist Aye Nyein Myint also focuses on inanimate objects, and her painting “The Shape” depicts a baroquely complex mushroom half-submerged in a glass of water.

“I decided to paint this because I really like the shape of the mushroom. If you look long enough, it looks like a dancing lady wearing a skirt. But viewers can look at the shape and think of something else,” Aye Nyein Myint said, adding that her paintings are not intended to show how her subjects would look in a photograph.

“I paint objects the way I feel in terms of color and texture. Some of my paintings are very detailed because I feel like it’s necessary to show that, and sometimes they’re not,” she said.


“The Shape” by Aye Nyein Myint

Myoe Thant Oung, who at 52 is the elder of the exhibition – some of his students are taking part in the show – paints natural scenery with the aim of conveying particular ideas to those who see his artwork.

His contribution to The Details includes a series of paintings titled “Strength of Life”, one of which depicts flowers growing from a dead tree stump, while another shows a small plant sprouting among weathered stones.

“I want to show concepts in my paintings. For example, people would easily cut up a tree and not notice the beauty of nature, but even if you cut up a tree it doesn’t die – it grows again,” Myoe Thant Oung said. “I want to show the strength of nature, and I want people who see this painting to get the feeling of strength and hope for themselves as well.”


“Strength of Life” by Myoe Thant Oung

Aung Thiha, meanwhile, is showing a series three portrait paintings – of his youngest daughter, his eldest daughter and his wife – titled “Reflection of My Heart”.

Each of these artworks is unusual in its own way: The wife, for example, is shown from behind and drenched with water, while the youngest daughter is seen through a window which is dripping with soapy water, her head cocked and her face bearing an ambiguous, almost sad, expression.

“For the painting of my young daughter, I wanted to show the beautiful reflections on the window and also the texture and transparency of the soapy water,” Aung Thiha said. “For her face, this is what my daughter looks like when one of her parents is away. Even when her mother goes to the market, she will be waiting for her, like she is longing for someone or missing someone. I tried to capture that expression.”


“Reflection of My Heart” by Aung Thiha

Curator Lynn Whut Hmone said she hoped visitors to the exhibition would enjoy the chance to see photorealist and hyperrealist paintings, which are not as common in Myanmar as more traditional types of realism.

“I want people to look at the art and see the details of the things around them, and learn to notice and appreciate them more,” she said.

“All these things around us have their own beauty, textures and colors. Even when looking at a simple white teacup, we don’t notice that there are so many colors reflected there. Artists can see this clearly and show it in their work.”

The Details is showing from August 16 to 20 at the Yangon Gallery, located in People’s Park near the Planetarium Museum off Ahlone Road. The gallery is open daily from 10am to 6pm.

This article was originally published in the September 16-22 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.



Myanmar’s very own Walt Disney brings legends to life

leave a comment »

Five years ago artist Htet Lin Aung could only dream of becoming an animator. Now he is well on his way to making his ambition a reality.

In June 2011, Htet Lin Aung showed his art in public for the first time. The occasion was the Artistic Reinforcement Touch group exhibition at Yangon’s Lokanat Art Gallery, featuring the work of young artists enrolled in the University of Culture’s bachelor of arts program.

Htet Lin Aung’s acrylic painting of an armor-clad Kinnara birdman stood out among the dozens of other artworks in the exhibition. The mythical Kinnara, normally a symbol of love in classical Myanmar literature, was depicted here as a fierce warrior with its feathered wings spread in rage and menace.

At that time, 18-year-old Htet Lin Aung – who had moved to Yangon from Meiktila in 2008 to attend the university – said that one of his hobbies was studying the characters from Myanmar history and legend.

“I learned about Kinnari and Kinnara in Myanmar traditional art class, and they are used by artists to represent sorrow and love,” he said. “They never had a remarkable place in literature other than entertaining kings and queens. They should be more than that. That is why I created [a different] story of Kinnari and Kinnara. Love causes many things. Where there is love, there is war.”

His dream, he said at the time, was to turn his version of the Kinnari and Kinnara story into an animation feature, and eventually to create high-quality animation that would be seen around the world and recognized as a product of Myanmar.

“To produce animation requires many people and costs a lot of money, but I’ll be patient and go through any hardships until I get there,” he said.

Five years on, Htet Lin Aung – now going by the name Mg Shino, after a character in a Naruto video game whom his friends say he resembles – is well on the way to realizing this dream. He now works in his own small studio in Yangon, where the walls surrounding his work desk are decorated with drawings, cartoons and stills from animation features from around the world.

“Since I finished university in 2011, I’ve given all my time to making animation. From the time I was a child, I’ve dreamt of making my drawings come to life. I didn’t think it was interesting for them to stay motionless on paper, so I was attracted to animation,” Mg Shino said, adding, “My parents never wanted me to become an artist, but now I’m finally getting my chance.”

Indeed, art was always a hard sell for his parents, who thought he was not focused enough on his school lessons as a child.

“My teachers scolded me about my drawings and called my home. But I could never remember the dates or facts of history very well, so I drew small pictures of what I was learning at school to help me remember. I did this all the way through 10th standard,” he said.

His parents planned to send him to a military school after matriculation, but an uncle who saw Mg Shino’s drawings convinced his mother and father to allow him to pursue his passion and attend the University of Culture.

But even landing a job at the 5 Network television station after graduation failed to impress his parents, who worried about the long hours he spent sitting in front of a computer. His work creating animation segments for advertisements and music videos finally helped send the message that he was not wasting his efforts.

“My parents have slowly come to accept my work, and when they see me interviewed on TV about my animation they are proud of me,” he said.

Mg Shino’s recent projects include a short animation segment of Inguli Marla, a notorious prince from Myanmar legend who wore a necklace of human fingers.

“He cut off people’s fingers – even his own mother’s – and finally tried to cut off the Buddha’s finger. I wanted to do a test project of Inguli Marla running, which is nice because he wears a necklace of fingers that moves while he runs,” he said.

Over the years, Mg Shino has also maintained his early interest in Kinnari.

“Now I’m studying the characteristics of bird-humans – their bones and joints, how long their wings should be and how they fly. Different kinds of birds have different characteristics,” he said. “I’m focusing on this project at the moment, and hope to release it next year.”

The influence of Japanese animation is evident in some of Mg Shino’s past work, but an even more obvious inspiration is Walt Disney.

“I loved fairytales, but when I was young I could only watch stories from other countries, like Cinderella, Snow White or Beauty and the Beast. All children love these films, but there was no animation depicting the many interesting fairytales from our own country. We grow up hearing our grandmothers read those stories to us, but I want to bring them to life,” he said.

“The characters I’ve made so far are mostly similar to Disney in style, but now I’m working to create my own style for my own characters,” he added.

In the meantime, Mg Shino must struggle not only with his own creativity but also with striving for success in a country in which the animation industry is virtually nonexistent.

“Until 2005, there were very few animators in Myanmar, but recently a few more young animators have emerged,” Mg Shino said. “Some other countries have well-funded studios where hundreds of animators work together on one feature, but here we all work on our own without support. I had to learn by watching animation cartoons over and over again, and I use Adobe Flash software, which I learned from another local animator.”

He said the local animation industry would benefit from more competitions, more support from the government and businesspeople, and more understanding from parents and society at large.

“People don’t know anything about making animation, and the parents of young artists don’t support them. In our country, most people do not have the habit of encouraging or appreciating each other. They would rather attack or insult you,” he said.

“As animators, we are not wasting our time but working hard to realise our dreams. We can see what painters want to say with their brushwork, and we can understand what actors or directors want to say in their movies. When action and art combine, the result is animation. For me, this is the best way to get people’s attention and send a message.”

Samples of Mg Shino’s art and animation can be seen on his Facebook page.

Lynn Whut Hmone conducted the original 2011 interview with Htet Lin Aung; more recent quotes from the artist were translated from Myanmar language by Nyein Ei Ei Htwe.

Art in full bloom

leave a comment »

Artist Mon Thet Rose Field #3 Mixed Medium 36x36in

Mon Thet, “Rose Field #3”

Flowers grow, flowers wilt, flowers die. But some artists dedicate their creative energy to preserving, in perpetuity, the beauty of flowers in full bloom. Such is the case for the five painters participating in the Gandha exhibition at the Yangon Gallery from August 27 to 31. Working in oil, acrylic and watercolor, artists Maung Aw, Mon Thet, Hla Phone Aung, Win Thandar and Zay Yar Aye are all renowned for their works depicting colorful blossoms in nature or as still-lifes.

The show is the brainchild of Than Thar Palae Thwe, who normally serves as Yangon Gallery’s business development executive but who is making her first foray into curating.

“I’ve been helping my colleagues organize exhibitions for the past two years, so I’m familiar with the artists, but this is my first time as a curator,” she said. “I named the exhibition Gandha because it’s a Pali-language word that means ‘fragrance’. I wanted to use fragrance as a metaphor for flowers.”

Than Thar Palae Thwe’s first challenge was securing the participation of Maung Aw, one of Myanmar’s most well-respected artists. Now 71 years old, he gave up painting flowers decades ago in favor of other themes. “Maung Aw’s flower paintings are really well-known among the art community and buyers, but he stopped painting them around 20 years ago and changed his drawing subjects. But I wanted to show people his flower paintings,” she said.

Than Thar Palae Thwe visited Maung Aw’s studio to appeal to him in person. “He doesn’t paint every day now because of his health, so I was worried about that – what if he refused me? But he accepted it easily. I asked him to please draw one or two paintings as he wished, and he gave me three new paintings,” she said.

Once Maung Aw was on board, it was easy to convince the other artists to take part. Like Maung Aw, Zay Yar Aye had also stopped displaying his flower paintings 10 years ago but agreed to contribute six or seven new and rare watercolors – he usually exhibits acrylic work – created specifically for the exhibition.

“One reason I am participating is because the artist I like best, Maung Aw, is also included in this exhibition,” Zay Yar Aye said. “I started painting flowers in 1996 and I continued for about 10 years. Those paintings were easy to sell, but several years ago I realized that I needed to stop because I was ashamed of myself for doing it just for the money. Flower paintings were keeping me from working on other subjects,” he said.

Now, returning to an old theme has helped re-invigorate his artistic life, he said. “The new flower paintings are based on my old style, but mixed with the new style I have developed since I stopped. Around 15 years ago I was not mature and my technique was not as good as now.”

While colorful blossoms are naturally imbued with physical beauty, Zay Yar Aye believes flower paintings should provide more than just a visual experience, and he strives to epitomize the title of the exhibition. “When people see my paintings, I want them to get the smell of the flowers. Maybe that’s why people like them. I get that across because of my passion for flowers – and also because I know the secrets of how to put the smells in the flowers,” he said, adding that those secrets would remain undivulged.

For Mon Thet, who has been painting flowers for more than 20 years, the invitation to participate in Gandha prompted him to make a special trip to paint the famous rose gardens at Pyin Oo Lwin. His aim as an artist, he said, is to give viewers a “different perspective compared to nature” and to express the delicacy of his subjects. “When I see flowers the first thing that comes to my mind is that I feel refreshed and relaxed, so I want to see people who look at my paintings get the same feelings as me,” Mon Thet said. “I want to erase people’s fatigue and give them good feelings.”

Erase your fatigue at Gandha, showing from August 27 to 31 at the Yangon Gallery, located in People’s Park near the Planetarium Museum off Ahlone Road. The gallery is open daily from 10am to 6pm.

Artist Win Thanda Cherry # 2 Acrylic on canvas 30x40in

Win Thandar, “Cherry #2”


Masters of Myanmar art show their work in Malaysia

leave a comment »

KL art.01

Myanmar artists (left to right): Pann Kyi, Khin Maung Zaw, Khin Zaw Latt, Soe Soe (Laputta), Tin Win, Mon Thet and Zay Yar Aye.

During his 40-year career as a painter, Tin Win has attended numerous opening ceremonies at fine arts galleries in Myanmar and abroad – but he had never experienced anything quite like the formal affair at The Edge Galerie in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on April 21.

Among the notable guests at the event, which marked the opening of the “Masters of Myanmar Art” group exhibition, were eminent Malaysian artists and art collectors, as well as Sultan of Perak Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Azlan Shah and his consort, Raja Permaisuri of Perak Tuanku Zara Salim.

“The opening ceremony was excellent,” said Tin Win, known for his photorealistic paintings of Myanmar’s ethnic minorities set against abstract backgrounds. “I had a very good experience meeting important people who were interested in our Myanmar artwork.”

The exhibition, which continues through May 22, encompasses 45 paintings by 11 of Myanmar’s most talented visual artists, seven of whom made the trip to Malaysia for the opening: Tin Win, Pann Kyi, Khin Zaw Latt, Zay Yar Aye, Khin Maung Zaw, Soe Soe (Laputta) and Mon Thet.

Also participating in the show but unable to make the journey were Tin Htay Aung, Moe Nyo, Aung Thin Oo and Zaw Min.

The works include oils, acrylics and watercolors, and range from realistic village scenes to semi-abstract pagoda images.

In a speech at the opening ceremony, Sultan Nazrin noted that as Myanmar has opened up to the outside world, “its art has emerged from the shadows, and today gallery owners from across the world are already scouting for talent”.

He said artists stand to benefit from such increased regional and international exposure to their work.

“These developments in the art scene are positive because, as in all great civilizations, a greater appreciation of art and culture contributes to a country’s aspiration to be a developed and civilised society. It gives a nation soul and depth,” he said.

“Art has always been an effective mode of political and social expression, and history has shown that many artists have paid a heavy price for daring to stand up to injustice.”

This “heavy price” is all too familiar to Myanmar artists who, before 2010, spent decades struggling under a government in which paranoid military ideologues with no fine arts knowledge dictated what was permitted to be shown in art galleries.

During their trip to Kuala Lumpur from April 20 to 24, the Myanmar painters visited several private art collections as well as the National Art Gallery, the Islamic Arts Museum and the Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery.

The tour provided insight into Malaysia’s art scene and highlighted the degree to which Myanmar’s arts had been asphyxiated – both creatively and financially – by more than 50 years of draconian military control.

And although some steps toward political liberalization have been made and censorship has been scaled back in recent years, the dark, not-so-distant days of junta rule have left a legacy of huge challenges for Myanmar artists. Among these is a business environment virtually bereft of local art collectors.

Tin Win, who was on his first visit to Malaysia, said that in Kuala Lumpur he met businesspeople “who collect artwork that is beautiful for hanging on the wall and that is also a good investment”.

“In Myanmar, businessmen don’t know about collecting artwork,” he said. “They invest in land or jewelry. Maybe with a little education, one day there will be more art collectors in Myanmar.”

During a radio interview on BFM 89.9 in Kuala Lumpur on April 23, Khin Zaw Latt expanded on this idea.

“It’s the same in every country: To live on art is very difficult. But especially in Myanmar, local people don’t buy art,” he said.

“I think it still needs to take time to develop Myanmar art … We still need to have the infrastructure like museums and private collections,” he said. “If you come to Myanmar, most of the galleries are run by the artists. No businesspeople are interested to do art galleries.”

On the creative side, Zay Yar Aye, who has benefitted from years of art education in Myanmar and Japan, said the Malaysia trip provided him with “practical experiences, ideas and energy” for future art projects.

“Malaysia’s art scene is very different from our country. In Myanmar, artists prefer to continue doing what they are already doing. In Malaysia they are more free. For example, you see artists who start out with a traditional style and gradually change to an abstract style,” he said.

Khin Zaw Latt, speaking to The Myanmar Times, agreed.

“Most Myanmar painters are still working on very traditional subjects like monasteries, temples and landscapes. In Malaysia they are more contemporary and free,” he said.

“I’ve seen many abstract artists [in Malaysia], but in Myanmar we have only a few such artists. Some artists in Malaysia, even though they are making abstract art, are doing well because collectors also appreciate these works.”

Overall, Khin Zaw Latt described the Malaysia trip as “a very good experience”.

“It’s a big exhibition for us because it’s a big group – 11 Burmese artists, including senior artists and younger artists,” he said.

“It was also a very grand opening. I’ve done many exhibitions inside and outside Myanmar, but I have never done this kind of formal grand opening. It was interesting, and also good to meet the local artists.”

The show was organized by ECM Libra Financial Group Bhd chair Datuk Seri Kalimullah Hassan and The Edge Media Group executive chair Datuk Tong Kooi Ong, with the aim of offering Malaysian collectors the opportunity to buy paintings by accomplished artists from Myanmar. Proceeds from the sales will be donated to charities in Myanmar.

“Masters of Myanmar Art” runs until May 22 at The Edge Galerie, G5-G6 Mont’Kiara Meridin 19, Jalan Duta Kiara, Mont’Kiara, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. For more information, email, visit or call +60-3-7721-8188. Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 7pm.

KL art.11

Raja Permaisuri of Perak Tuanku Zara Salim (left), Sultan of Perak Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Azlan Shah (centre) and Myanmar artist Khin Zaw Latt attend the opening of the “Masters of Myanmar Art” exhibition in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on April 21.

KL art.10

Sultan of Perak Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Azlan Shah and Raja Permaisuri of Perak Tuanku Zara Salim.

KL art.05

Zay Yar Aye poses with one of his paintings.

KL art.06

Soe Soe (Laputta) and his artwork.

KL art.07

Khin Maung Zaw poses with his artwork.

KL art.13

The artists visit a private art collection in Kuala Lumpur.


This story was published in the May 1-7 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

Blog.Weekend_May_01 __ 26-27

Armed with a ballpoint pen

leave a comment »

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 ,

Beyond the visual: Exploring the stillness inside the Burma Railways building

leave a comment »

Below is my article about an exhibition of paintings by British artist Kate Bowen, originally published in the March 13 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine. The article’s layout, with images of paintings from the show, is posted beneath the article.


Downtown Yangon’s iconic Burma Railways building is the subject of an exhibition of paintings by British artist Kate Bowen, which is on display at Gallery 65 on Yaw Min Gyi Road, Dagon township, from March 14 to 22.

The exhibition, titled The Mee Ya Hta Building, includes 50 artworks in a range of mediums, including oil on canvas, gouache on paper and watercolour on paper.

Bowen, who studied fine art at Gloucestershire College of Art and Design, arrived in Myanmar in late 2013. Before then, she had focused her artwork on the changing cityscape in London during the Olympics, with her interest drawn, as she explained, “toward the cranes, the diggers, the moving of the earth and the reconstruction of space”.

Once in Myanmar, she was immediately captivated by Yangon as a fast-developing cityscape rooted in different cultures and an extraordinary history.

“I wanted to really get under the skin of that,” Bowen said. “I made a plan to focus as much as I could on just one subject, and I started off by doing drawings from the top of Sakura Tower trying to map the city a bit.”

Two of the paintings that resulted from these drawings are included in the exhibit, but the bulk of the work stems from spending more than a year working in and around the Burma Railways building at the corner of Bogyoke and Sule Pagoda roads.

Bowen gained access to the compound after meeting an engineer who was working onsite and who arranged permission for the artist to set up an easel there.

The Burma Railways building provides an apt exemplar of those aspects of Yangon’s transition in which Bowen was so interested.

Built in 1877, it has been empty since 1994, when the Ministry of Railways vacated to move to a new headquarters. The old structure is now being restored as part of the US$400 million Landmark Project, which encompasses more than 10 acres of prime downtown real estate and under which the Burma Railways building will be developed into the luxury Peninsula Hotel Yangon.

“I decided to focus on this one building … and started on the outside until I was allowed inside,” Bowen said. “I then worked around all the passages on the ground floor, all the passages on the first floor and then the top floor and out onto the roof looking down.”

She described the work as a “good experience in understanding one building”.

“It’s been a springboard for experimenting with different mediums, pushing the boundaries [and creating] much more abstracted pictures: the light on the floorboards, the shadow of the sunlight where the windows are broken,” she said.

One of Bowen’s aims was to evoke something more than just the visual aspects of the structure, an instinct that is perhaps rooted in her appreciation of artists such as Mark Rothko who strive to create particular moods through their meticulous colour choices.

“I wanted to get into the empty spaces of the building, the ruined space, the dilapidation, and the quietness and silence,” she said. “As I worked through the building, there were passages and rooms that were very silent and very empty, but there were ones which were quite edgy and spiky and almost threatening in a funny way. I wanted to try to get that across in the pictures in various different ways.”

Among the results of these efforts were ink studies of the shadows within the passages, as well as works on black paper where the artist “tried to imagine how a particular shape, with the sunlight on the floor, would look at night”.

The Burma Railways building is also notable for the fact that the lower floor was constructed using red-tinted laterite blocks made from rich, clay-like soil cut from Myanmar’s riverbeds, and Bowen has integrated this material into some of her work.

“The laterite stone, that pinky kind of earth stuff, is fantastic in itself as a pigment,” she said.

Her method was to collect laterite powder from the building, mix it with white acrylic paint and use a palette knife to draw into the wet paint on black paper.

Bowen said that at some point she would also like to work on a piece of wood that comes from the building, but understands this will not be possible “until they know what they’re keeping – and they are preserving so much from it, and it’s being beautifully restored at the moment by master craftsmen”.

One of Bowen’s favourite mediums is oil on canvas, and those paintings were done in her home studio based on sketches completed at the building site. However, working with oil paint has provided one of the biggest technical challenges she has faced as an artist in Yangon.

“With the humidity and the rainy season, even with air-con in a room, oil paint can draw in the moulds. I had to work out how I could tackle this by using Liquin, which speeds up the drying of the paint and therefore makes it possible to work in a very fluid way,” she said, adding, “I wasn’t going to be defeated in working in oil because I don’t like working in acrylic paint.”

Aside from the inspiration provided by the Burma Railways building, Bowen said she was happy to be working in Yangon at this “really exciting time” for the local art scene, particularly in light of the greater freedom of expression that has come in the wake of the lightening of censorship.

“I think the arts scene very vibrant,” she said, “and there are a lot of hungry people here who are desperate to have their voice after feeling that they didn’t dare in the past.”



Written by latefornowhere

March 18, 2015 at 4:07 am

Being kind to the new

leave a comment »

Award-winning British film producer David Puttnam joined a panel of local experts in Yangon last week to discuss the links between culture, public policy and society, and the benefits of encouraging innovation in creative industries

It all started with cowboy films.

That was how the United States, which until the late 19th century was largely an immigrant nation comprising dozens of languages and no central identity, was able to forge for itself a coherent ethos to project to the rest of the world.

This was one of several examples of the tremendous power of film to shape ideas and attitudes that was presented by UK Trade Envoy and eminent film producer David Puttnam during his visit to Yangon last week.

“[The cowboy film] was very important to America because it created a set of identifiable figures who were mythic, who could be identified as good guys, bad guys, principled people, unprincipled people, positive influences, negative influences,” he said.

“Around this myth of the cowboy emerged the myth of America … and it has endured to a remarkable degree, to the point where the way America saw itself, as well as the way it was seen by the rest of the world, was through the cowboy myth, the sense of the good man who stands up for principle, the sense of fairness, the sense of the rule of law, the sense of moderation.”

Puttnam, who also sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords, knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the movies: He spent 30 years as an independent producer of award-winning films, which earned 10 Oscars, 25 British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTAs), and the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Among his more well-known titles are Midnight Express (1978), Chariots of Fire (1981), The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986).

He was speaking at a panel discussion titled “Putting Culture at the Heart of Public Policy” held at the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) in Lanmadaw township on October 9.

The event, according to a press statement released by the British embassy in Yangon, “was aimed at providing a platform for policymakers and stakeholders to discuss how placing culture at the heart of public policy can help Burma achieve its ambitions”.

Among the panelists was U Kyaw Oo, the rector National University of Arts and Culture, who offered a narrowly defined concept of culture based on reverence for Myanmar traditions.

“Nowadays, most of the young people are not interested in the traditional culture. They are more interested in modern culture – not only music, dance, dress and design, but also behavior, communication and lifestyle.”

He complained that kids these days spend their time on Facebook, playing games, singing karaoke and drinking beer, but have forgotten the “duty on their shoulders” to maintain Myanmar traditional culture.

U Kyaw Oo said the cultural university played a key role in “strengthening the national unity and the perpetuation of the national culture”, adding that its activities “are not only propaganda and to strengthen Myanmar culture, but also putting the culture at the heart of the public, especially for the young generation”.

However, Puttnam suggested that truly vital culture lay somewhere in between the extremes represented by the traditional-culture-versus-misdirected-modern-youth dichotomy suggested by U Kyaw Oo.

Puttnam offered Ireland as an example, which in 1922 adopted as its official language the old Irish language and promoted veneration for traditional Irish culture, effectively stifling creative innovation.

But two things happened that dramatically changed this unfortunate situation, the first of which was the introduction in the United Kingdom of television broadcasts that could be received on the east coast of Ireland.

“All of a sudden young people were watching very, very good TV programs in English. They became resentful that they had this linguistic duality and dumped the Irish language,” he said.

The second was that the music industry rediscovered its cultural heritage, but tied it to new musical trends. Examples included female singer Enya, as well as the popularization of Riverdance, which was an updated version of traditional Irish step dancing.

“For some Irish traditionalists, this was an outrage. You couldn’t do this because there were very strict rules in step dancing. But it turned an Irish tradition into an international phenomenon,” Puttnam said.

“Really great cultures emerge when you use the very best of the past and have the courage to reinvent it and re-create it as something that is relevant to young people,” he said.

“If you leave [culture] in aspic and say, ‘well this is what we did 300 years ago, we’re going to make it again and again and again’ – that’s dead. What’s vibrant is young designers using traditional methods to reinvent something which is part of the soul of the country. I believe countries have souls, and those souls tend to reside in their culture. But they do need refreshing and reinventing. And that’s the challenge for a new generation here in this country.”

Panelist Grace Swe Zin Htaik from the Myanmar Motion Picture Association said she “partially agreed with U Kyaw Oo” about the need to pass traditional culture to the next generation, but also believes that “culture comes from innovative creative industries, and policy plays a vital role for industrial development”.

“The government always considers the creative industries as an entertainment tool … They have no idea to make policies to develop the industry by investing,” she said.

“But we do have to think of technical development. Our middle generation is facing the cultural shock of the learning technical know-how in our country since changing the policies in 2011 … We are not familiar with that technical development.”

Grace Swe Zin Htaik also said it was essential to create space for young independent filmmakers to work within the industry.

“We should have to create the space for them by merging our own traditional values and the technical know-how. That will be the main door for the development of the creative industries,” she said.

Puttnam largely agreed with Grace Swe Zin Htaik, adding, “There’s a whole generation that needs to enter the cultural arena, and what culture might mean to them might be somewhat different than what culture might mean to someone my age.”

“The cultural world offers young people the jobs they actually want … These are jobs that young people identify with, that they want to be part of,” he said. “They are part of the future. To ignore them is to ignore the genuine desire among young people to improve themselves, and to ignore the economic opportunities they offer.”

Panelist Nay Lin Soe represented the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative, which works to “build a society where people with disabilities can live independently and to their full potential”.

He shared his experiences as a disabled person living in Myanmar, and in doing so provided examples of how traditional cultural beliefs can have a negative impact on a significant segment of society.

After losing the use of his lower extremities at age three due to polio, one of his earliest experiences was being rejected from attending primary school because of his disability. Fortunately, his mother found another school that accepted Nay Lin Soe, and he went on to attend university.

He later started working for disability inclusion and the rights of disabled people in Myanmar.

“Public policy or development should not be limited only to economic growth of the country, but also to increase the wellbeing of human life by promoting social justice through the inclusion of all groups,” Nay Lin Soe said.

“Everybody is talking about how the country is opening and changing, but in reality many citizens with disabilities have not been included in such programs … We are still left behind on every developmental process of the country.”

He said public policies need to be put into place to remove the physical, attitudinal and systematic barriers that kept disabled from living in equality with others.

In response, Puttnam offered another example of the power of movies to shape public policy. He cited films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Men (1950), Coming Home (1978) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) – all of which depict the struggles of injured soldiers facing the process of readjusting to civilian life after war – as being instrumental in changing public attitudes toward disabled people.

“These films had the effect of reminding people that there was a generation, a whole group, that had been forgotten,” he said.

Mr Puttnam ended the panel discussion by cautioning against the misuse of culture.

“Culture can be used negatively as well as positively. Culture misused is a lazy word, a very exclusive word. It can mean ‘my culture, things I understand’, so that it becomes an exclusive word rather than an inclusive word,” he said. “Culture is something that has to be used judiciously, intelligently and generously.”

He also said that hard work is required to create an atmosphere in which young people have the “confidence to express themselves, confidence to believe that their contribution is valid and important”.

Once again he turned to film for an example, recalling a scene from the animated feature Ratatouille (2007) in which one of the characters says that the most important thing that critics need to remember is “to be kind to the new”.

“The new needs to believe in itself, and the new needs to develop confidence,” Puttnam said.

“Unless you put your toe in the water, unless you do these things, and believe you can do them and take them seriously, and get public policy to back them – because that’s what public policy is there to do – they’re never going to happen.

“It’s fine for us to sit here talking, but in the end none of these things happen unless you and the media and the public policymakers decide to make them happen. Otherwise we can have a nice conversation but nothing changes.”

This article appeared in the October 13-19 issue of The Myanmar Times.

Artist Aung Myint: Facing the collision between observation and intuition

leave a comment »


From the start of his career as an artist, U Aung Myint has favored free expression over cautious conformity.

It all began when he met Ko Khin Maung Yin, a pioneering experimental artist well known for his relentless pursuit of creativity at the expense of material comforts.

“I liked his works, so I asked him how to paint,” U Aung Myint said in an interview at Inya Art Gallery, which he cofounded in 1989.

“He told me that you can do what you want to do. ‘It is your artwork,’ he said. ‘Don’t copy the work of other artists. Whatever your inspiration, you can do what you want to do.’ I liked this idea very much, so I tried to create my own work.”

U Aung Myint, 68, has made a career out of doing just that: The self-taught painter eschewed traditional figurativism and instead began experimenting with various styles and media as a means of exploring social, political and economic issues.

As a result of this adventurous approach to his work, U Aung Myint became a well-respected, groundbreaking contemporary artist in his own right.

In 2002 he won the Jurors’ Choice Award at the ASEAN Art Award in Bali, Indonesia, for his “Mother and Child” series, and his works have been collected by the National Art Gallery of Malaysia, the Singapore Art Museum and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.

“I’m always searching for more and more experiences. Many kinds of artworks have developed in other countries, but not here. So I want to look and search for new art experiences,” he said.

Over the years, his work has included both representational and abstract images, and easily discernible influences range from the whorls of the Myanmar alphabet to abstract expressionism.

The latter influence is most apparent in a series of works he created in the early 2000s that strongly evoke the mid-20th century “drip” or “action” paintings of American artist Jackson Pollock.

One of U Aung Myint’s drip canvases from 2001 was on view at the recently closed “14 AM” solo show at TS1 Gallery at Lanthit Jetty, but the main focus of the exhibit was the more recent “Faces” series, which was started in 2012 and is still ongoing.

The “Faces” paintings tread the line between representational and abstract, and they help illustrate the breadth of U Aung Myint’s experimentation by hearkening back to early 20th century modernist expressionism in both their style and the somber aura they project.

This melancholic mood stems from the artist’s use of black paint and indelicate brushstrokes to create facial expressions that are predominantly and disquietingly neutral in aspect.

While the bleakness of some of the paintings is broken by swaths of red, others are so dark that the faces are barely discernible.

A statement from TS1 Gallery informs us that this series of paintings offers “a reflection on the personal intrigue and trauma of a changing populace coming face to face with the global”.

U Aung Myint provided a simpler interpretation of his work by explaining that he was inspired by “looking around and seeing the many different expressions” on people’s faces, and by his desire as an artist to “show these differences”. In other words, they are the product of keen observation of the physical world.

That’s not to say that the images can be considered purely objective. The artist said that much of his inspiration is rooted in the intuitive impulses of his own mind.

“When I paint, my hands and my mind are different. They express different things. It depends on my mood,” he said. “The painting comes out while I work. I paint without intention. Sometimes I’m surprised by what I create.”

U Aung Myint’s self-professed inspiration for these paintings – observation and personal mood – calls into question whether the third ingredient suggested by the gallery statement (Myanmar’s transition) is pertinent, or whether it’s merely a symptom of the current madness for imposing contextual meaning in light of the provisional liberalisation under way in the country.

It’s not much of a stretch to accept the relevance of this third element – U Aung Myint is no stranger to tackling social or political issues – but doing so raises questions about the fine line between objectivity and subjectivity that, at least on the surface, seem difficult to reconcile.

How can an artist determine what thoughts are behind the faces observed in the street?

If a passerby’s brow is furrowed, is it because he’s mulling the implications of coming face to face with the global, or is he concerned that his teenage daughter has just eloped with the punk next door?

Would the “Faces” series have turned out differently had it been created, say, 10 years ago, long before Myanmar’s accelerated collision with the rest of the world?

It might be posited that while U Aung Myint is “observing” physical faces, he is choosing (consciously or unconsciously) to depict only those he believes to best represent the zeitgeist of the so-called transition period.

Such an interpretation would help explain why most of the paintings depict a sea of subjects rather than a single portrait, and also why there is a certain sameness to so many of the faces.

If this is indeed the case, the mood as filtered through these angst-infused images is fairly bleak.

But even this explanation is belied by U Aung Myint’s own take on why the facial expressions lack dynamic range.

“You can look at people’s faces, and some are sorrowful and some are happy. I tried to show this, but I cannot now. I don’t think I’m a qualified artist,” he said. “Faces are very difficult to catch. I think I will try to create more artworks in the series to catch these faces.”

U Aung Myint’s professed lack of self-assurance is not uncommon among artists who are happily and heavily involved in the throes of the creative process.

As such, it is clear that the “Faces” series is a work-in-progress that will continue to evolve, and that its place in the artist’s own canon, and more broadly in Myanmar’s contemporary art scene, is yet to be ascertained.

Written by latefornowhere

September 22, 2014 at 8:46 am

The pen sketches of Hla Myint Swe

with one comment


True creativity cannot be confined by genre. Those who demonstrate an aptitude for drawing or painting often possess the ability to bring their distinctive way of looking at the world – including their keen sense of composition – to bear in other art forms such as photography.

Such is the case with Hla Myint Swe, an artist who was born in 1948 in Bhamo, Kachin State, and who has made a name for himself by publishing a series of books containing black-and-white pen sketches of the “national tribes” of Myanmar. Many of the images are based on photographs he has taken during his travels around the country. However, he does not consider himself a true artist, but rather “an amateur with a profound interest in drawing and photography”.

This self-perception, the artist confesses, stems primarily from his lack of formal training. But he made up for this by demonstrating persistence and natural talent from an early age, teaching himself to draw by copying pictures and photographs from books. By the age of five Hla Myint Swe was receiving praise from peers and teachers for his artistic talents, and later he was even drafted by his teachers to instruct his fellow students on his drawing techniques.

Hla Myint Swe continued developing his skill by studying artwork in locally published weekly magazines, as well as in any foreign comic books he could get his hands on. He finally met his first art teacher, U Lu Tin, while attending St Peter’s High School in 1965. U Lu Tin often assigned his students to paint landscapes, but Hla Myint Swe preferred figure drawing, and so instead of painting the scenery, he drew side-view portraits of this fellow students as they worked. When U Lu Tin saw this, he remarked that Hla Myint Swe had a way of thinking that was different from the others.

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. Although he was unable to carry paints and brushes to the front lines, he always kept ballpoint pens in his backpack, and whenever he had the chance he drew portraits on whatever scraps of paper he could find. It was from this experience that he developed his tendency toward black-and-white sketches.

In 1992 Hla Myint Swe was transferred to Yangon, where he worked for the Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC). His duties put him in contact with painters, writers, filmmakers, performers and photographers, from whom he was able to learn more about the finer points of creating art. In the meantime, he continued developing his own work, making at least one or two sketches even on his busiest days.

As part of his work for YCDC, Hla Myint Swe helped put together several coffee-table photography books, including Yangon: The Garden City (1995), Shwedagon: Symbol of Strength and Serenity (1997) and Yangon: Green City of Grace (1999). His contact with photographers for these projects piqued his own interest in photography. Whereas previously he had used his camera only for family snapshots during trips, he now started utilizing it as a tool to enhance his artwork, a means of capturing the interesting faces of Myanmar’s ethnic people who live in remote areas of the country, which he could later sketch from the photographs.

In recent years Hla Myint Swe has held several exhibitions of his sketches in Yangon, and the work can also be seen in a series of large-format books the artist has published since 2006. The main subjects of these drawings are the ethnic people of Myanmar in their traditional dress.

The third volume, Pen Sketches of Artist Hla Myint Swe: Nature and Social Life Features of Myanmar (2010), is, according to the artist’s preface, an effort to sketch those fleeting moments during which people’s facial expressions reveal their “inner lives”. Perhaps unintentionally, the brief notes that accompany each drawing often reveal the inherent subjectivity involved in “reading” someone’s expression, and the extent to which the artist projects his own assumptions onto his models.

One example is a drawing of a Ta-ang (Palaung) trustee of Loi Hsai Taung Pagoda in Namhsan, Shan State, whom the reader is told has a “pure inner mind” that “reflects his open and simple smile”. But of course neither the artist nor the reader has any way of knowing the degree to which the trustee might possess purity of mind, or whether his smile stems from such thoughts.

However, it is a testament to Hla Myint Swe’s skill as a sketch artist that the viewer is confident that the trustee’s face has been captured with great accuracy. The viewer therefore feels free to study the man’s face, rendered in black and white, and come to his or her own conclusions about what might be occurring inside his mind.

This simple act automatically makes the sketch something more than a passive drawing, taking it into a realm in which the viewer is challenged to engage, to think, to interpret. And this, more than anything, has always been what separates the interesting from the mundane in the world of art.


Roger Ebert and me: the Myanmar connection

leave a comment »


Director Robert Lieberman (left) screens his documentary film They Call It Myanmar
at the British Council in Yangon in January 2012.

On April 4 came the news that legendary, Pulitzer Prize–winning movie critic Roger Ebert had died. Aside from feeling sadness at the passing of one of the most prolific and well-respected film critics in the United States, I was reminded of the tenuous connection I had made with Mr Ebert in the context of a film about Myanmar.

In March 2012 The Myanmar Times published my review of a documentary film titled They Call It Myanmar, directed by Robert Lieberman. My story was aimed at readers living in Myanmar, so I was compelled to move beyond the “isn’t Burma strange and exotic” angle and take a more in-depth approach.

A few days later, Mr Ebert wrote his own review of the film, which was posted on his website. A friend sent me the link and pointed out that the critic had used my article as a source for his review, and had even mentioned my name. Here’s the relevant excerpt from Mr Ebert’s article:

Lieberman’s film is the only doc about Burma available. I gather he may not be an infallible source. He’s informed by a fellow foreign passenger that the buses leading up a steep hillside to a temple often plunge off the road, killing everyone on board. Douglas Long, in the Myanmar Times, writes: “The drivers, the man further explains to the camera, are not bothered by the prospect of dying. On the contrary, they consider it an honour to sacrifice their own lives while performing the meritorious deed of carrying pilgrims to one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Myanmar.”

Long says in his nine years of working for the newspaper such an accident has never occurred, and “those who live in Myanmar will immediately recognise the man for what he is: a charlatan unable to resist the compulsion to impress others with ‘special knowledge’ about the supposed dangers of visiting ‘exotic’ locales like Myanmar.” I am reminded of the tall tales told by local guides in Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad.

Not exactly earth-shattering, but it was still cool to score a mention from the man himself.

My original article is posted below:

They call it sneery: Mixed reaction to film on Myanmar

In one of the more peculiar moments in Robert Lieberman’s recent documentary They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, the director is sitting in a truck at the bottom of Mount Kyaikhtiyo in Mon State, waiting to be driven up to the Golden Rock.

The lorry is crammed with Buddhist pilgrims, but Mr Lieberman gives his attention to another foreigner seated next to him, who quite ominously explains that the trucks frequently veer off the winding road as they make their way to the top of the mountain, plunging into deep ravines and killing everyone on board.

The drivers, the man further explains to the camera, are not bothered by the prospect of dying. On the contrary, they consider it an honor to sacrifice their own lives while performing the meritorious deed of carrying pilgrims to one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Myanmar.

To back up his story, the man cites The Myanmar Times, which he says carries articles about these tragic accidents on a weekly basis.

Foreigners who have never been to Myanmar might have little reason to doubt the veracity of the man’s tall tale. He is, after all, a subject in a documentary, and good documentaries are meant to be all about revealing the truth.

But those who live in Myanmar or who possess reasonable knowledge of the country will immediately recognize the man for what he is: a charlatan unable to resist the compulsion to impress others with “special knowledge” about the supposed dangers of visiting “exotic” locales like Myanmar.

Those of us working at The Myanmar Times were doubly amused by the account: In my nine years at the newspaper, I have neither read nor edited a single story about trucks plunging into the abyss at Mount Kyaiktiyo, much less published such stories “every week”.

We might easily excuse the inclusion of this buffoon in the film as an instance of the wool being pulled over the eyes of Mr Lieberman and editor David Kossack, but at the same time it illustrates the risk of documentaries serving as an inadvertent vehicle for misinformation if careful choices are not made about what to include and what to keep out.

Mr Lieberman is an American director, novelist and physics lecturer at Cornell University, and They Call It Myanmar is getting unprecedented attention from media and audiences in the United States. The film, according to a statement released by the producers, purports to be “an attempt to put a human face on the country” rather than a “message” film.

The movie was edited down from about 120 hours of footage shot by Mr Lieberman during four trips to Myanmar from 2008 to 2010. He had first visited the country while working on short films for tuberculosis prevention.

The timing of the film’s release could not have been better. With Myanmar ostensibly moving toward some form of democracy, and with perennial newsmaker Daw Aung San Suu Kyi now taking part in the political process, the country is, as Mr Lieberman said in an email to The Myanmar Times, “suddenly hot news”.

As a result, They Call It Myanmar has in recent weeks been shown to sold-out audience in most major East Coast cities in the United States. The film is playing at Lincoln Center in New York City on April 3 before moving on to cinemas in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego.

That’s not to say that the positive attention is based entirely on fortunate timing: Contrast the buzz surrounding They Call It Myanmar with the poor reception for French director Luc Besson’s The Lady, a biopic about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi released earlier this year that has garnered few positive comments from either critics or audiences.

Mr Lieberman’s film features many beautiful scenes shot in different regions of Myanmar, a testament to what can be accomplished by a single person using a high-quality handheld video camera.

There are also plenty of home-video-quality scenes shot with a shaky hand, but rather than detracting from the movie, these support the press statement’s assertion that while in Myanmar, Mr Lieberman “shot video constantly, even though it was forbidden and risky for him to do so”.

This point, that the footage was shot “clandestinely” despite admonishments from locals that filming in Myanmar is extremely dangerous, is repeatedly driven home in press coverage of the movie published in the US, a brilliant bit of PR that helps sell tickets to Western audiences who have come to accept the paradigm that any media report from Myanmar involving the covert gathering of information will reveal truths previously unknown to the outside world.

While it’s worth noting that Mr Lieberman only occasionally strays from the well-trod tourist path, where foreigners with still cameras and small video cameras are a common sight, They Call It Myanmar does provide an informative introduction to the country for those who have never been here, particularly on the subjects of culture, history and poverty.

The film opens with an introduction to the use of thanakha, ubiquitous throughout the country but wonderfully unfamiliar to newcomers, and later provides a quick lesson on the country’s recent history. Other scenes document the poor state of the healthcare system and the widespread use of child labor.

Reviews from international critics have been favorable, but it’s also instructive to compare these glowing reports with comments from local viewers, who saw the film when it was screened in Yangon in January.

Like international audiences, they appreciated the overviews of history and traditional culture, which serve as effective introductions to the country for foreigners. But there are also those pesky moments that are likely to pass unnoticed by most overseas viewers but were troublesome from the local perspective.

One of these moments was the coupling of an image of volunteers sweeping the platform at Shwedagon Pagoda with a voiceover of the narrator speaking about lack of employment opportunities in Myanmar.

Uninitiated viewers might assume from this scene that sweeping pagodas is a form of paid employment in Myanmar, rather than a means for Buddhists to perform selfless deeds, thereby gaining merit toward their next life.

This might seem like a minor point foreigners, but when I’ve described this scene to Buddhist friends in Yangon who have not seen the film, the reaction has ranged from mild disapproval to deep shock that a director could be so poorly informed about the subject of his movie. The handful of Christians I surveyed were more forgiving.

(When asked in Yangon about the pagoda-sweeping slip-up, Mr Lieberman placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the film’s editor.)

Some audience members at the January screening in Yangon also questioned the title of They Call It Myanmar, about which Mr Lieberman responded that he thought the title was somewhat ambiguous: “I mean, who is ‘they’?” he asked the audience.

Of course when foreigners talk about Myanmar, particularly those like Mr Lieberman who make a point of referring to the country as Burma, there is really only one “they” from which to choose. It would be a stretch to assume that the word is a reference to the poverty-stricken people depicted in the film.

One anonymous Myanmar national who helped Mr Lieberman with the film, presumably before knowing what the title would be, even refused to attend the screening in Yangon.

“[Mr Lieberman] insists it’s fair but I object very strongly to the title, which sounds sneery. I have told him, and others, that we call it Myanmar because it’s the original name of the country,” the person in question said in an email to The Myanmar Times.

“Outsiders do not know or care about the reality of the name Burma as opposed to Myanmar, because Burma was coined by the Brits and Myanmar is the name etched in stone during the Bagan period, 1235AD to be exact,” the email continued.

One audience member at the Yangon screening also asked Mr Lieberman whether he believed the country had changed since the November 2010 election, to which the director responded that he thought there were “no changes on the ground”.

“There have been huge changes politically, but people are still trying to feed themselves,” he said.

Of course it would be absurd to expect Myanmar, even under the most benevolent leadership, to solve its deep-rooted poverty issues in a few months, and in the next breath Mr Lieberman did acknowledge that there has indeed been a different kind of change, of the sort that is important to people in Myanmar in ways that most Westerners can barely imagine; that is — to borrow the title from a book by Aung San Suu Kyi — the freedom from fear.

“I’m less afraid [in Myanmar] than I was a year ago,” Mr Lieberman said.

Written by latefornowhere

April 26, 2013 at 6:36 am