October 20, 2017

Discovering the modern arts movement hidden behind Lokanat Gallery

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The Lokanat Gallery, Myanmar’s first private gallery that turned 44 in December last year, is considered
the historic place for Myanmar’s modern and contemporary arts movement.
Now, the gallery’s 44th anniversary exhibition, opened on 20 December, 2014, continues through 20 February to showcase the members’ many works.
The Lokanat, a symbol of peace and prosperity and figures prominently in art and culture of Myanmar, was founded in 1971 at
an colonial building indowntown Yangon as a non-profit organization by U Ba Than and U Ye Tun with the aim of encouraging the arts, both painting and sculpture, of naturalism and modernism in the country.
“In those days, artists considered that exhibiting their works at Lokanat was being ordained as artists,” said U Pe Nyunt Wai, a 60-year old art master and a member of the gallery.
Though Myanmar artists had firmly believed in the gallery’s motto “Art Comes To Us With the Ministry of Truth, Beauty and Love”, they had to struggle in their modern arts movement for about three decades from 1962 to 1992 as successive governments set strict censorship rules on creating modern and contemporary arts.
“The worst for the artists was that the socialist regime which started in 1962 put media, including paints and brushes, on the list of luxury items and collected high taxes on them so they could not be imported easily. Therefore paints, brushes, paper and canvas were not available in Myanmar,” said U Tin Win, 60, a well-known artist member of the Lokanat Gallery.
In that period, there were no foreign businesspeople, nor foreign companies except embassies, in Myanmar. It meant there were no buyers except diplomats who bought paintings at an annual exhibition in Yangon. Sometimes, diplomats organized group exhibitions at their embassies and residences, and from four to five Myanmar artists exhibited their works in each group show.
As there was no income from their creation of works, nor getting media easily, Myanmar artists had to turn to commercial painting for their livelihood and struggled to make ends meet.
Diplomats from the French, American, German, and British embassies gave the media, including paints, paper, canvas and so and books on the arts to their friends in the art world as gifts and showed documentary films of international modern arts to them.
On the other side, Myanmar artists, living in an isolated country, knew little about the movements of international artists, how they made their creations, or with which techniques.
“Modern paintings were also considered ‘paintings created by crazy men’ in those days,” said U Tin Win.
“In fact, Lokanat gave birth to the vanguard of Myanmar’s modern and contemporary arts movement,” said U Pe Nyunt Wai.
He recounted the generation before them, saying the then young artists Paw Oo Thet, Baji Aung Soe, Khin Maung Yin, Maung Ngwe Tun, Win Pe, Ko Shwe Aung Thein started to develop the modern art styles and became successors to U Khin Maung (Bank) and U Aung Khin (Mandalay) who introduced modern arts to Myanmar after the country gained independence from Britain in 1948 after they discovered modern works in books from France, the US and other European countries.
In 1988, the socialist era ended and the then government adopted new policies that helped Myanmar contemporary artists to be able to have relations with international arts societies and to study movements of international artists through the internet.
And owners of overseas galleries and artists from foreign countries began to visit the country.
Still, the rapid change was not much benefit to early contemporary artists in Myanmar, the majority of whom had faced serious obstacles to make a living and a career.
The country has opened up, unexpectedly, but even now many artists are not ready to break out after being isolated from the international community for more than 30 years.
For many of those artists, the lack of knowledge in their crafts due to a rarity of books on the arts, scarcity of media, worry about censorship, and not really understanding contemporary arts because they have no experience of visiting arts shows and galleries abroad has meant a clouded and difficult learning path that, for most, is only beginning to be travelled.
In fairness, Myanmar’s contemporary arts should be considered to have started only in 1993, not in 1920. Myanmar’s contemporary arts, even now, have not yet grown up and are still “at toddler age”, U Tin Win said.
Today, the art works of the founding members of the Lokanat Gallery are rare works in Myanmar.
“Leave the vanguard to history. Today is the time for the new generation, the new blood of artists to make new creations with new techniques and with new thinking,” U Pe Nyunt Wai said.

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