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Creating the design from the details

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“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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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

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Zay Yar Aye poses with one of his paintings.

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Soe Soe (Laputta) and his artwork.

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Khin Maung Zaw poses with his artwork.

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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.

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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

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The pen sketches of Hla Myint Swe

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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.