Nathalie Johnston is a Yangon resident, art curator, and Director & Founder of Myanm/art—a pioneering art gallery representing the ‘newer breed’ of contemporary artists. In this interview, Nathalie elaborates on her perspective and experience working in and among the Myanmar art scene.
Before Myanm/art what other projects are you involved in?
I first came to Yangon in ‘97 with my family. That’s what first sparked my interest in the country and its politics. I had, since the age of 12, an interest in researching and understanding the news about Myanmar. I came back in 2009 as I was doing a thesis in Performance Art and I met Moe Satt and the people behind Beyond Pressure, a performance art festival.
Later on, I met with people from New Zero Art Space and others. I started a blog called Myanm/art, my first project where I wrote about the exhibitions and the people that I met. I partnered with Mrat Lunn Htwann —a performance artist—to support others. We founded 7000Padauk, a three-month project at an old small house on Strand Road in Kyee Myin Daing.
Around the same time, I started MARCA (Myanmar Art Resource Center and Archive) which was supposed to be a digital library but ended up being a physical one instead. With that established, we started the Mobile Library with Khin Zaw Latt from KZL gallery and independent artist Zoncy. Then Ivan Pun, one of the sons of FMI Chairman Serge Pun, was going to open a gallery, TS1, on the riverfront in 2013 so he invited me to be this fancy gallery director at an old warehouse in Latha Township. But sadly after one year, we were closed down and I was an independent curator for a while. People then started telling I should have my own space, so I opened Myanm/art in April 2016. Here we are, three and a half years later—in a different location.
What did you envision for Myanm/art?
Could we crowdfund and create a space that was free from ‘scrutiny.’ A gallery space that was free-of-charge for artists, so they didn’t have to pay per day to use it. Somewhere they could create and experiment with little pressure to sell; somewhere with a resource center so we could hold educational workshops. Lastly, somewhere that supported the community that I knew. When you look at some artists, you’d have to go to their houses and look at their laptops to see what they’ve made. Mostly because there are no galleries in Yangon that will showcase their work. The owners would think the artists’ works aren’t conservative enough, or traditional enough to sell to tourists. I felt Yangon needed a space where these artists could be themselves and try new things. Now we have this new place and we’ve made a lot of investment. I think the artists are also ready for something a bit more serious and to be taken seriously—and also to be a network point for international curators and researchers.
Describe your passion for art in and out of Myanmar.
It started when I was very young. I’m very lucky to have parents who let me become whatever I wanted to be—with the exception of getting good grades, of course. Their rules were: “As long as you get a college degree, we don’t care what it’s in.” I majored in Studio Arts, I was an artist myself and an art educator for many years. To always promote art, something I’ve noticed worldwide is that there’s this serious neglect for the power and potential to change society. I was hard on myself when it came to my own art. I was better at writing about other people’s art. I was more interested in that, it was a way I could sort of spread the love. That, together with my appreciation for this country, just came together really well. I made great friends, this is what fueled my passion. I could live here, and I could still be involved in the art scene. It’s been almost a decade since I came here, I still feel the same about what I do.
Other than art, what hobbies do you have?
Almost all of my hobbies involve something to do with art. I guess I like reading, karaoke, meeting new people, museums, archiving, photography—I have an old darkroom photography habit that I haven’t employed in years.
Describe the Myanmar Art Scene.
In my mind, the Myanmar Art Scene has so many layers, facets, and directions. I only cover one portion of that. Generally speaking, it’s much larger than what most people think. It’s a lot; the number of artists, the number of galleries and studios. It’s also incredibly varied—kind of like parallel railroad tracks: you have a very strong conservative painting tradition on one track and then you have what we call “the contemporary” today. These two ‘tracks’ tend to run alongside one another, sometimes they interact but there’s very little ‘crossover’. Institutions, until recently, solely supported the painters and the traditional artists. Myanmar has a great multi-national group of artists who come from all over—especially from Yangon but not everyone is from Yangon. I’m particularly excited about the younger generation, who have grown up in a much more different time than the previous one.
Who is your favorite artist?
The first one I can think of is Hannah Höch, a German collage artist who used photo collage. I love her work and how it intimate yet challenging it is, politically; how she used photography—a semi-new medium at the time. For me, she kind of changed the game and she was able to bring the two mediums together; visual art and photography. My taste in art isn’t necessarily being attracted to beautiful things, I like a little bit of violence in my art. For me, art must reflect real life. There are so few artists that tell about the pain that life brings.
What do you enjoy most about working at Myanm/art?
I feel grounded here, I have a sense of control. I always get to meet and interact with new, creative people who want to learn more about Myanmar art. Working with artists is my favorite thing to do, in general. In terms of this space, it still feels useful and as soon as it stops being useful for the Yangon art scene, I will close it.
Plans for the future?
Myanmar is an uncertain place so I never plan too far in advance.
Catch Nathalie, sometimes, at Myanm/art.