Painting in the Footsteps of Monks

Painting monks from behind, and washes of water and fishermen, Min Wae Aung continues a tight routine, experimenting with his art.

Min Wae Aung keeps up a disciplined daily regime of painting with breaks for food, walks and a de rigeur movie.

Flip-flap, flip-flap! You can almost hear the syncopated footfalls as saffron-clad monks, suffused in monochromes, saunter away from view in Min Wae Aung's mesmeric Monk Pop canvases.

Min Wae Aung funnels his eye on the lower body region, the lifting and lowering of the feet barefoot or clad in slippers, harnessing the anatomy strictures of his main mentor Thu Kha (1918-2007).

The backdrop is often left plain and flat to project a timeless quality, but in an array of attractive monochromes circumventing the foreground-background rule, and later on, infused with understated but gorgeous textures. The itinerant monks, with the bald pates and maroon robes in insouciant droops, are done in shimmering silhouettes, later with an aura tracing the line of movement.

From the back, they are anonymous disciples bereft of worldly possessions save for their black begging bowls cradled in their arms, or the modest luxury of bamboo umbrellas and fans (shown in bits to lead the eye). Far from being inspired by Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World as had been speculated, the fixation of rendering monks from the back is one that is symbolic, about the material world they leave behind and their being sworn to celibacy and an ascetic life. The steps are also seen as a purposeful, steadfast gait in search of truth and possibly nirvana, in the vicissitudes of life.

Min Wae Aung later includes nuns and novices into his Monk Pop tableaux, as these have become more ubiquitous during his encounters around streets in Myanmar. In the works showing the younger set, there is the odd novice with head craned back, distracted or curious and perhaps hankering for the once carefree and boisterous life.

A close-knit family: Min Wae Aung with wife Than Than Maw (seated) and Min Maw Aung. His youngest son, Kaung Maw Aung, is studying in the US.

Later too, Min Wae Aung started putting faces mainly on the novices or shown in profiles, capturing an emotional range of innocence, cheekiness and exuberance. In earlier works, his two sons, Min Maw Aung and Kaung Maw Aung, then small, are the models, shown either squatting, bored or with stray dogs or cowering under Myanmar's tropical monsoon heat.

Since 2016, Min Wae Aung has started embellishing his works by singling out a figure in full colour regalia amid a monochrome to break the homogeneity - it's a brilliant trick.

His figures and overall composition keep evolving, with many high points. In 1990 he married his sweetheart Than Than Maw, a "15-painting" wonder, and which coincided with Myanmar's ending of its militaristic isolation (1980-1988). Visits to museums, galleries and artist's studios in the US and Japan (4th Asian Art Show at the Fukuoka Art Museum) in 1993 and 1994 respectively gave him a fresh perspective, and impressed upon him to focus on a specific subject and style.

Min Wae Aung responding to questions in Burmese in his vast studio, with his son, Min Maw Aung, translating clearly in English.

"The idea of drawing monks from the back came from a magazine," confides Min Wae Aung, who gradually developed and refined the theme and composition. His stint as illustrator for several magazines, from 1982- 1988, stood him in good stead.

Because of his phenomenal success, his works, like those of China's Yue Min-jun, are widely copied, but Min Wae Aung takes a sanguine view about it: "These artists are struggling and poor. I am partly happy that they could make a living from that (copying my works). Friends have advised me to sue them, but it's a futile exercise," says Min Wae Aung, often clad in his trademark checked shirt and longyi.

In his "Water World" FiguEScape, Min Wae Aung goes into another trajectory, playing on the placid water reflection to create serenity, peace and beauty on canvas - something which strains the eyes if one looks long enough at it. A figure of a fisherman, with the oar tied to one of his legs to paddle and a net to boot, is rendered miniscule but with loving microscopic details, thus debunking the idea of Man being an insignificant speck in the cosmic order of things.

Monks in different coloured robes walking on a mock pedestrain crossing emanating partly from the Buddhist flag colours, with a boy with a tiffin-carrier, for bodily sustenance.

His daily painting routine reads: Paint (often with audio play of music, hymns or even sermons) after breakfast from 9am or 9.30am, and rest at noon for lunch; resume painting from 1pm to 5pm, then a walking exercise and dinner; from 8-9pm another painting session before the de rigeur movie time and then bedtime.

Min Wae Aung was born in the delta town of Danubyu, where local hero General Bandula was killed in the first Anglo-Burma War (1824-1826). Oddly, he had had solo exhibitions all over the world (Singapore, United States, Britain and Switzerland) before Myanmar's National Museum in Yangon accorded him a first solo in 2001.

With Myanmar being non-patronymic or matronomic, people change names at the drop of the hat, and so, after his education at the State School of Art in Yangon in 1982, Min Wae Aung opted to bury his birth name of 22 years, Maung Hla Myaing (briefly even, Min Wae Hmine), the "Wae" chosen over the more popular "Wai" for numerological perfection, and with his auspicious birthdate of "December 28" adding up to "10", meaning "1" or "No. 1". "Min" means "leader", and "Aung" success.

He had a sound foundation from his State School tutelage with the likes of Thu Kha, Mya Aye, Tin Aye and Kyaw Hlain and was inspired by Paw Oo Thett, Ba Sway, Ba Yin Galay and Ba Yin Gyi.

Min Wae Aung's 2010 acrylic on canvas, Life's Road, with the cloud rendition somewhat reminiscent of "Cloudy" Kyaw Hlaing's (1914-1996) dramatic clouds.

The Violinist.

He promotes local art and international exchanges through his New Treasure Art Gallery (1989/1990) housed within his fivestorey residence cum studio, and he heads the International Watercolour Society (IWS) Myanmar chapter and the Thu Kha Art Foundation. He is one of the largest single individual collectors of vintage Burmese Old Masters in art like Ba Nyan (1897-1945) and Ngwe Gaing (1901-1967) apart from Thu Kha.

Some of Min Wae Aung's more recent works where a more colourful figure is contrasted against a monochrome veneer of other figures.

Min Wae Aung was interviewed during the triple-header of exhibitions, from November 23-December 3, 2017. The exhibitions were the 2nd IWS Myanmar show, the IWS president Atanur Dogan solo, and the Master Artists demonstration by Smith Sein Lynn (Myanmar/Thailand), Sattha "Lafe"Homsawat (Thailand) and Prafull and Rajesh Sawant (India) in Yangon. The artists then went on a painting expedition to Mandalay and the scenic Southern Shan State of Kalaw and Inle Lake.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy "movel" (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend..

Related Articles

Feb 2015

Choong Kam Kow – A this-worldly visionary

With 258 selected works and some 57 years of toil, artist Choong Kam Kow is finally getting his hugely deserved moment.

Jul 2017

Tribute to a Visionary Virtuoso

John Lee Joo-for was one of the greatest acts in post-Independence Malaysian art.

Jun 2014

Valley of art

Klang Valley is simply bursting at the seams with art. Ooi Kok Chuen explores.

Feb 2016

Loving Paris in the Winter

When it gets cold in the romance capital of the world, it's time to nip into an art gallery or two.