The exhibition opening party will be on Saturday February 20th, from 6pm – 8pm in River Gallery II. Fifty River Gallery artists have provided their best, new artwork for the show, and a special catalogue is being produced to mark this occasion. All are welcome to come and help celebrate River Gallery’s 10th birthday. The exhibition continues until March 6th.
A Brief History
River Gallery came about almost by chance. A couple of years after moving to Myanmar with my family, I was meandering around the local art scene when I discovered that many of the best Myanmar artists were producing works for a 2004 ASEAN-wide art competition. Artists, eager for this rare opportunity to engage with the outside world, were painting up a storm. Only three weeks before the submission deadline, disaster struck – Myanmar was fired from the line-up of countries by the organizers. Used to disappointment, the artists put away their paintbrushes and murmured about “next time”, but I thought we should try to find an alternative.
Together with Ross Dunkley of the Myanmar Times – we organized the first Myanmar Contemporary Art Awards, which attracted nearly 500 entries, among them some startlingly accomplished and creative works. I remember the excitement of finally seeing the 30 finalists’ works hung, and it gave me a vision of what a gallery for contemporary Myanmar art could look like.
When River first opened its doors in November 2005, I had no idea whether the gallery would last six months – let alone a decade. We found that there was a small, but avid market of visitors who wanted to take home a painting from the country that had enchanted them.
It has not all been smooth sailing. After the initial couple of years of growing tourist numbers and bubbly financial markets, we entered a darker phase when the country, beset by crises, seemed to turn in on itself. Then the global financial meltdown of 2008/9 cast a long shadow, and visitor numbers declined further.. And yet, through it all, the artists continued to produce their works of tranquil beauty, many of them expressing subtle protests in their art, discernible only to those used to reading between the lines.
The second Myanmar Contemporary Art Awards in 2008 took place in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis which hit on May 2, 2008. We were due to have the exhibition of finalists one week later but there was no question of sticking to this schedule; just about everyone, including all the artists, was involved in relief work at that time. The gallery itself became a collection point for donated goods. We had a laugh when one of the few tourists at that time, asked if a large pile of 50kg sacks of rice was an installation which he could take back to Texas.
A month later, we decided to go ahead with the exhibition. The art that had been produced for this competition was a bright spot in an otherwise grim landscape, and we thought it ought to be celebrated. The winner of the competition – Khin Zaw Latt – took his prize money and immediately travelled to his stricken hometown in the Delta to donate to the relief effort. Time and again I have witnessed this kind of generosity and willingness to help others in need, from the River Gallery artists.
We hit another milestone for the gallery in October 2013, opening our second premises, in the Chindwin Chambers, a charming colonial building in 38th Street, right beside The Strand. Once again, a bit of scraping and dusting uncovered a gorgeous space, especially suited to the larger canvases many Myanmar artists favour.
So now at the start of 2016, Myanmar artists have options and opportunities that did not exist before. Many more are traveling abroad for residencies, art exchange programs and courses. But it is still tough, the market for original art, while expanding, is small, and Myanmar lacks the art infrastructure to support a fledgeling art industry. But Myanmar artists are talented and resourceful, and I’m sure they will continue to find ways of expressing their creative vision. Our aim at River Gallery is to help them connect with audiences, admirers and buyers, while contributing where we can to the development of the overall art scene in Myanmar.
Over the years there have been many memorable moments in the gallery, but I’d like to share a couple where were were able to help the artists push through the restrictions they faced in Myanmar during the censorship era.
The first was after I had been running the gallery for about a year. I had come to know many of the senior artists and on one visit we were talking about censorship and they were complaining about how they had to be so careful in their choice of subject, moaning in particular how they cannot display paintings of nudes. I learnt that three of them together had organized a model for life drawing sessions the previous year, so they all had sketches, but they had not turned them into paintings, knowing they could not be exhibited in Myanmar. But I figured I could get away with a show if I didn’t publicise it as a nudes exhibition and if it was for just one night, by invitation only. We used a wine tasting as a smokescreen, and called the event “Wine and Women”. The artists were up for it.
Despite being quite secretive about the theme of the show, word got out, both among the expat community and the artists, and even before the advertised opening time on the night, the gallery was heaving. The younger artists were longing to see how their seniors had addressed this forbidden subject, and of course the expat will go anywhere for a chat and a drink.. I was a tiny bit worried, as the Bureau of Special Investigation is right next door to the gallery, so in my blah-blah to open the show I suggested to the guests that if the police did come, we should all take off our clothes , thinking they would be so profoundly embarrassed they would flee immediately. Hearty endorsement on all sides – but no-one put to the test. Thankfully.
Another treasured moment was in March 2011, when we were preparing for the exhibition of finalists of our National Portrait competition. Censorship of the media had come off, and we were hearing informally that censorship of art would also be lifted. But as nothing was black and white we decided we should invite the art Censorship Board (12 people, no less!) to review the exhibition beforehand. They duly arrived, gave all the works a cursory glance, apart from one, which they gathered around and discussed animatedly. It was a dramatic portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, in monochrome red, with myriad tiny portraits of her father stamped all over the image. I believe this was the first portrait of The Lady to be seen in public for decades.
The Censorship Board were in a pickle; some were arguing that it was way too sensitive, others making the point that she was out of house arrest, and a private citizen. Finally, after more to and fro, the leader of the group threw up his hands and proclaimed “It’s just a portrait!”, decisively stamping his red seal of approval on the exhibition licence. When the artist – Khin Zaw Latt – heard this story, we figured this was the perfect name for the work. “Just a Portrait” has been admired by people from around the world, but for me it has an extra special significance. It marks the moment that Myanmar artists could stop censoring themselves, and paint what they pleased, something unimaginable just a short time ago.
Artists have always inserted subtle political messages in their works, but now they can be direct in their references. “I Wanna Go to School” by Zay Zay Htut expresses graphically what is on many people’s minds these days. It’s good to see contemporary artists step up to play the important role in expressing “the people’s desire”, to borrow a favorite phrase from the former military government.
River Gallery 1
Strand Hotel Annex
92 Strand Road, Yangon
Tel: (95-1) 243377/8/9
River Gallery 2
33/35, 37th&38th Street, Yangon
Tel: (95-1) 378617
The Upcoming 10/10 Exhibition
The brief to our River Gallery artists for this exhibition was to create their best work. It could be any style and medium, the only condition being that it had to be something we had not seen from them before. So, no landscapes from Zaw Win Pe, Buddha heads from Khin Zaw Latt, or thanaka-cheeked girls from PPA. We wanted to encourage the artists to challenge themselves to move beyond their comfort zone and find a new means of putting across their message. Despite many anxious faces at the briefing, I’m proud to say that almost all of the River Gallery artists have entered work for the exhibition. I look at the works and am surprised and delighted with the new directions they have taken. We hope you like them too.
Nann Nann, Friends and Dance, found pieces of wood
Nann Nann has had her own gallery in downtown 14th Street Yangon for twelve years. She was trained by her mother to paint from the age of four, but found her true passion in the art of ceramics and sculpture. She had her first solo exhibition in 1997. In the sculpture, ‘Friends and Dance’, she uses a large piece of teak wood found on the riverside and brought back to her studio. To this she has added found pieces of broken and incomplete teak carvings, recycled from local shops. The sculpture is a union of positive and negative spaces which from a distance is viewed as a unified form. Close up, shapes of a variety of creatures such as elephants, monkeys and horses can be seen. To Nann Nann all these animals are our friends who we have an attachment to, and are equal to us. She wants us to all dance together and be friends. There is only balance and unity.
Than Kyaw Htay, ‘Silent Sweat (19)’, 122 cm x 152 cm, acrylic on canvas
Than Kyaw Htay was born in Sittwe, but left at an early age. He studied under U Soe Htay, U Tun Aye, and U Win Pe Myint and had his first solo exhibition in 2004. In 2013 he returned to nearby Mrauk-U and saw the women and children still carrying the distinctive metal water pots that had been so much of his childhood. This remembrance inspired his latest series of paintings. In ‘Silent Sweat (19)’, the women are walking away with their backs to the viewer. He thinks this gives more of a story. They are on a journey that has not ended. The pagodas are out of focus, as they represent the future, which is still unclear. He says the pagodas have been neglected and uncared for – they face an unpredictable future, as does the country of Myanmar. He believes strongly the country’s heritage needs looking after and must not disappear. Inspired by Van Gogh, Than Kyaw Htay gives his paintings texture and added depth by scratching a comb through the pigments, at times revealing the contrasting underpainting, and giving the effect of radiating lines. This adds another layer between the people and the background, and creates rhythm in the painting. Than Kyaw Htay’s newest paintings will incorporate Buddhist script transmitting the message: ‘everything has its own reason – he who knows that reason, is a noble man’.