The woman in the painting looked over her shoulder, head tilted, raven hair cascading down her naked back. She had an elegant, graceful form. Her exposed ear wore two golden studs. Her eyes were hidden behind two black uncaring voids.
“In “Friday the 13th,” he kills so many people, both men, and women,” explained San Minn, “like she is killing our Myanmar culture.”
The murderous woman stared down with menace. Her hidden eyes followed us around the Trish Gallery as San Minn introduced more of his thought-provoking and emotion-evoking artwork.
The juxtaposition of images and ideas in the room were testaments to a master creative. “2001 of Space Age” (1974) lands a lunar module formed from intertwined bodies on a barren moon to represent San Minn’s vision of mankind seeking a new frontier after Earth becomes overpopulated. “Mystical Longing” (1990) captures disparity in surrealism with the wealthy cruising through life on a luxury liner, the everyman swimming unassisted, and the pauper sinking as the lighthouse of society shows the way to a land he will never reach.
San Minn’s face lit up as he shared the stories behind each piece, detailing his ideas, exploring his thoughts, and exposing his heart. His inspiration is varied and when asked where he gets his ideas he replied, simply, “I read so many books. I combine my ideas and my book knowledge; I have studied so many brilliant books.”
San Minn, 68, has a life of creativity in his veins and he has bled it out through paint on canvas. His ideas may not have always been popular or politically correct—30 of his pieces were censored during his career—but he has stood by his ideology and creative instincts with determination. The artist portrays the world through their interpretation, not through the prescription of authority.
A student in Rangoon Arts and Sciences University in the 1970’s, San Minn was part of an artistic movement that founded the “Wild Eye” Art Exhibit, an exhibit that continues to today. His youthful passion and liberal ideology served his art but put him at odds with the government during the U Thant crisis of 1974. San Minn served 3 years and 1 month in Insein Prison, an experience that has shaped his artistic energy since and informed many of his installations.
San Minn was released from prison in 1978 and has been a creative force in the Myanmar modern art scene ever since, organizing Gangaw Village, co-organizing the Inya Art Gallery, and supporting art movements that speak to his soul. He has traveled the world, exhibited his artwork from Japan to Finland, and held 15 One Man Shows. In every painting and installation, he has blended his ideas, clashed concepts, and sought to share his insights into the crazy world around us.
We flipped through a few books in his portfolio and I stopped at an oil painting titled “Karaoke Civilization I” (1994). “She can’t see; the money covers her eyes. Her hat is a bottle top. It is materialism. I see this a lot,” San Minn said.
“Was it banned,” I asked.
“Of course, the government didn’t like me using the Myanmar kyat.” He pointed to another painting hanging in the gallery, “Face III” (1998). “On that painting, I used the dollar, so it wasn’t banned.” He gave a weak smile and nodded at his self-censorship; it was a compromise, but he got his message out.
San Minn lead me around Trish Gallery one more time before we left. A smoking man was fading away in one painting and beside it there was a baby in a grenade. An anthropomorphic bird was hunting humans and farther down the gallery wall “The Silent Killer” (1996) depicted the silhouettes and faces of the many victims of the AIDS epidemic.
The surreal visions of life as we know it clashed around me, beautiful paintings of conflicted thoughts. “You only get your ideas from books,” I asked. He smiled. “A lot of books. A lot of ideas.”
San Minn’s paintings can be found in private collections, the National Museum, and modern art shows around the city. Find them and be inspired.