It’s an exciting time for both artists and art lovers in Myanmar, a country whose unique mix of cultures and diverse geography provides a well of resources for creativity.
The art scene is still relatively close knit yet there are new galleries popping up each year giving support to more new artists. And with the country opening up, there has been increased interest from collectors both local and international. Whether you’re a gallery owner looking for undiscovered talent, an artist looking for inspiration, or simply a lover of art, the galleries of Yangon will give you a compelling insight into the psyche of a nation. If you’re looking to buy, you will find prices that remain reasonable.
With a country this beautiful it’s unsurprising that much of the art work draws from the rich landscapes of the countryside and coastline and the pagoda dotted plains of places like Bagan. Other popular inspirations are the people of Myanmar’s regions, each with different cultures, festivals and clothing. Painted in a realist style by the top artists, these paintings are stunning – and there are many artists choosing to add new perspectives to these traditional scenes, experimenting with colours, angles and giving their own unique take on Myanmar culture.
If your taste leans towards the more radical, then you won’t be disappointed either. While certainly not as popular as more traditional subjects, there are a rising number of artists exploring more diverse styles, from the abstract to the surreal. Politically-inspired artwork is also gradually appearing, from explicit symbolism to more covert satire.
While the current art scene is bursting with optimism and creativity, it wasn’t always this way. Before 2013, artists had to submit paintings for approval prior to exhibition, which led to many pieces being deemed unsuitable for public display. With an art scene resting on the whims of officials, who often perceived criticism where there was none, it was unsurprising that artists felt stifled and the industry suffered.
Thankfully, with the relaxation of censorship laws and increased international attention, art lovers from around the world are increasingly being drawn to a burgeoning scene. The relative coziness of downtown Yangon means that a day of gallery hopping is a perfect way to spend a day for art lovers.
One place that’s on everyone’s to visit list is Pansodan Gallery. Since its opening in 2009, the place is a regular haunt of both locals and foreign residents and is known for its unpretentious atmosphere and long running Tuesday night gatherings, which are open to all. The gallery is currently spread out over three spaces. The original Pansodan has a large collection of modern paintings from local artists, while Pansodan upstairs is a collection of vintage works. Pansodan Scene, further down the street, is a larger space for exhibitions and events and has a café which is a good place to take a break from the hustle and bustle of downtown’s busy streets.
Further down Pansodan street is the Lokanat Gallery, a non profit institution located in the renowned Lokanatt building, which dates from the early 20th century. Also close by is River Gallery and River Ayeyarwaddy Gallery.
If you wander out behind Bogyoke market you’ll find yourself in the Yaw Min Gyi street area, an upper middle class enclave built around the most BEHS Dagon 1, the most prestigious public high school in the country. There are a number of Art galleries in this increasingly trendy suburb. Gallery 65 is located on the western end of Yaw Min Gyi in a beautiful teak house and garden and shows a mix of contemporary and old masters with the occasional performance. Of the other end of Yaw Min Gyi is Nawaday Tharlar, known for its friendly atmosphere and contemporary artists. The next block over, Nawaday Street, hosts Think Art gallery, which plays host to a number of upcoming artists in the Myanmar scene. Finally at the top of Yaw Min Gyi, close to La Pyay Wun Plaza, is New Zero Art Space, which alongside paintings, is best known as a patron of performance art. If you’re a fan of cutting edge, this might be the place for you.
Overall, if you’re a long time collector, or simply looking for something unique from your time in Myanmar, then a day gallery hopping is a great way to spend a day. There’s something unique about visual art in that it transcends language, so even if you don’t end up mastering Burmese, a wander around the galleries of Yangon will give you an entrance into Myanmar culture like no other.
Ewan Cameron, January 2016