This article was published in Myanmore magazine a few years ago.
On Mandalay’s bustling 69th Street stands a massive 7-meter high statue of a well-proportioned woman. It is impossible to miss. In fact, when it was first installed there were a few accidents caused by gawking motorbike drivers stopping in rush hour traffic to take a closer look. But the sculpture is more than just a work of art- it is the reason why Dreamland, a pioneering contemporary arts centre, came to be.
More than 15 years ago, Ar Lone was sitting in a tea shop near the Mandalay Fine Arts University when the statue caught his eye. ‘I could not believe it. It was so unusual and so beautiful- I was so drawn to it that I knew I had to meet the sculptor who created it,’ he recalled. The artist in question was Su Myint Thein, a Mandalay native who was teaching at the University. A meeting was arranged and it was the start of a long-term friendship and partnership that has helped Mandalay’s creative community grow.
The two immediately clicked. And although Ar Lone admits he had no real knowledge of art back then, he intrinsically knew there was something of value in it. As a kid, he had played the pipe and found it soothing to his mind, relieving him of stress and replacing it with a sense of peace and calm. Remembering this, he invited Su Myint Thein into his home to teach his six children about art. Once a week, the kids would sit with the sculpture and pour over books of paintings from Myanmar and around the world. Watching his kids absorb this knowledge, Ar Lone developed a further appreciation of what he calls ‘art sense’.
And thus Dreamland was born. The idea was to establish a place where Mandalay residents, especially kids, could be surrounded by creativity. Ar Lone gave Su Myint Thein a space to open an art studio and training centre, called Alin Dagar Art School. That was more than 15 years ago, at a time when Myanmar was relatively isolated from the outside world.
These days Dreamland has evolved into a multi-purpose space. In addition to Alin Dagar, there is an art supply shop with reasonably priced paints, inks and canvases. Upstairs is a large exhibition space that is used by artists from outside Mandalay who wish to display their work in the city as well as being used by NGOs who come to promote arts education. Dreamland also has a space that it rents, for a very low fee, to music teachers so that they can conduct private lessons in a comfortable, central environment.
Ar Lone is pleased – and surprised- with the progress of Dreamland. ‘In the past, parents did not think arts education was important. Even my father-in-law told me that art was a ‘hungry thing’, saying I would never make money to feed me and my family.’
And at times, his father-in-law was right. There was little interest in art, only guitar was popular as a creative expression. Parents were happy to buy their children guitars and tapes of famous Myanmar singers but reluctant to buy them paint brushes and canvases. But the two friends pushed on.
The first big change came in 2011, when the internet became more accessible and information started flowing in to the country. Parents started to see that students in Thailand and Singapore were receiving well-rounded educations, with art and music being taught alongside maths and history. This altered their perception of modern education and suddenly they wanted their children to have this same worldliness that they saw in other Asian and international cultures.
More and more students attend Dreamland. Some for music, some for art and many for both. Ar Lone’s own children have also been big leaders in this change, helping to teach and also spread the word about Dreamland via social media. International organisations have chipped in, holding workshops about art history and art appreciation.
‘The young generation cannot always make their own choices’, says Ar Lone. ‘But through art we can encourage them to try and persevere. There is no pressure in our classes but we seem them make progress and with that brings more confidence that they have their own will and ability’.
With the international visitors, Ar Lone got another idea. To open a guesthouse, run by his children, to welcome tourists into a space filled with creativity. The new addition is made largely of recycled materials and features whimsical paintings by Mandalay-based artists.
His family has been so motivated by the progress of Dreamland that they have recently opened a similar space in Aye Thar Yar, near Taunggyi. Part-hostel, part-art-space the second Dreamland hopes to be a creative hub where up-and-coming artists can mingle with art lovers from near and far.
Despite the brashness of the sculpture that started it all, Ar Lone, Su Myint Thein and Dreamland have been quiet players in the evolution of Mandalay’s contemporary art scene. However their influence is huge, creating a new generation with the very ‘art sense’ that Ar Lone believes is so vital. And with the opening of their second Dreamland, their vision will continue to influence budding artists for many years to come.
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Corner of 60th & 37th Streets