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Posts Tagged ‘Shwedagon: Symbol of Strength and Serenity

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.