Painting for Peace

Myanmar’s golden stupas and scenic countryside are an inspiration for watercolors.

During end November-early December 2017, Myanmar’s International Watercolor Society (IWS) set about a trial run for its 2019 fully international programme of a global watercolour phenomenon which saw the biggest gathering of artists practising watercolour in the name of peace and art.

IWS Myanmar’s end of 2017 programme incorporated its second annual exhibition with a solo by Atanur Dogan, the flamboyant IWS global president, with his humanist paintings, and a demonstration by guest master artists Smith Sein Lynn (b. 1941, Myanmar-Thailand), Sattha “Lafe” Homsawat (Thailand) and the Indian Sawant brothers Rajesh and Prafull, held at the New Treasure Art Gallery in Yangon.

The guest artists – together with some IWS members led by its president Min Wae Aung (b. 1960), the iconic artist of Myanmar Monk Pop – then made a cross-country painting expedition to Mandalay and the southern Shan State, covering the hill resort of Kalaw and the Unesco Biosphere Reserves site of Inle Lake.

The modus operandi entails an exhibition, demonstrations by guest master artists, alfresco site paintings at local landmark sites, sharing techniques and tips, and a merry roustabout of feasting and drinking to foster camaraderie, if not a “family” spirit. Different chapters have their own ways of defraying the organising costs, and in the case of this IWS Myanmar, Min Wae Aung and his gallery picked up the whole tab. The gallery, housed in a five-storey stand-alone building, is also the family home cum studio and with an activity hall and mass dining apart from an astonishing collection of Myanmar old art masters in the “cellar”.

The on-the-road (bus) itinerary included time for painting and photography/ video documentation for back-in-studio reconstruction-interpretations.

In Yangon, the tour staples were the sacred Shwedagon Buddhist shrine complex and the bustling Bogyoke Aung San Market, apart from the Sule conurbation of the Shwe Sule, reputedly the centrifugal point that leads to the rest of Myanmar.

As Myanmar is a country steeped in Theraveda ascetics, the itinerary was full of visits to pagodas and monasteries. In the ancient capital city of Mandalay, there were the teak palace-turned-monastery Shwenandaw (reconstructed 1878), the Mandalay Mya Nan San Kyaw Golden Palace (last palace of the monarchy) and the Shwe Kuthodaw with its stupa phalanx of 729 marble inscriptions of the entire Tripitaka. Half a day was spent at the impoverished Kwe Sun (Buffalo Point) littoral of stilt houses, and the other near the Shwe Kyet Yet Pagoda where, fortuitously, a grand ordination ceremony with a convoy complete with an ornately bedecked elephant and horses was in progress.

Kalaw, at an elevation of 1,320m, is a splendid getaway from the November heat though it could be freezing at night, with temperatures even dipping below 10 degrees Celsius. The participants were put up in Min Wae Aung’s country home built around a hillside, while some others were billeted at a nearby inn. Meals were home-cooked by the caretaker Tin Myint MG and his assistants.

Some of the artists spent time painting on the Heho Lookout Point promontory near the airport, overlooking a picturesque valley with lavender hills with shades of ochre, falun red and green. The group to Inle Lake was divided into two, one taking the longtailed boats to Shwe Inn Tain Pagoda and the other to the Taunggyi market where exotic tribespeople plied their wares.

The 24 Yangon-based Myanmar artists are, on the whole, proficient in skills and showing an ease of handling figures, still-life and landscapes. With an average age of 50.8 years, they range from the youngest, Aung Htet Lwin (b. 1991) at 27, to Mya Thaung (b. 1943) at 75. They were joined in Mandalay by Dr Arkar Myo (b. 1992), who had traded his stethoscope for paint brushes. They were a doughty lot, braving the night chills of Kalaw and the windswept Heho Point despite one having asthma and another suffering from Parkinson’s. Even Smith had just recovered from a long illness, but could clamber up a vantage platform to paint plein air in the Indein village of Taunggyi.

With a relatively longer tradition in art than most South-East Asian countries, harking back to painting in lacquer and on palm-leaves and a time of royal patronage, Myanmar is playing catch-up after years of isolation under the draconian rule of General Ne Win from 1962-1988, opening up only in 1989.

Some of the participating artists are not unfamiliar to Malaysia, having taken part in the International Art Expo Malaysia (AEM), such as Aye Min (2016, 2017), sculptor-painter Myint Aung and Hla Phone Aung (b. 1966), known for his outdoor fireplace paintings (both 2009 and 2010), and Aung Sint (b. 1968), also a sculptor who specialises in lotus ponds and who took part in the 2006 Oita Asian Sculpture competition (2015).

Aye Min (b. 1969), a Geography major who sold well in the 2017 AEM, will be having a solo at PinkGuy Gallery in KL in February 2018.

Myint Aung (b. 1968), the only one who painted abstract in the exhibition, was invited to the Borneo Sculpture Festival in Sarawak in 2005 and the Pulau Ketam Art Festival in 2016.

Min Wae Aung, who was selected for the Asian Art Show in Fukuoka in 1994, was among the leading artists featured in the Asean Masterworks exhibition at the National Art Gallery, KL, in 1997.

Khin Maung Zaw (b. 1970) and Moe Nyo (b. 1976) were among 11 artists taking part in the Masters of Myanmar Art exhibition sponsored by The EDGE in KL in April-May 2015. Khin was also featured in the Art of Asean exhibition in Bank Negara, KL, in 2016, and the Myanmar travelling art exhibition in Italy in 2016.

Phoe San (b. 1975) spent five years working in a textile factory in Batu Pahat until 2009, after graduating from the Yangon State School of Fine Art (SSFA, 1998-2001), only one of two art schools, the other being in Mandalay (Minn Myint Khaing was the only Mandalay-trained among the 24).

Phoe San and Aung Sint had both won third prizes (worth US$2,000 each) in the Tun Foundation Bank competition in 2005 and 2008 respectively.

Mya Thaung and Soe Moe (b. 1944) both studied at the SSFA in 1965-1967 under greats like Lun Gwee, Thu Kha, Ngwee Gaing and Thein Han. Soe Moe is also an awardwinning film director and photographer. The next oldest, Kyaw Thaung (b. 1948) was the only one depicting architectural facade of the Palladian Style.

Mying Naing (b. 1967), who could not join the expedition, had received news that his work had won the top prize in the next IWS event in New Delhi, India.

Self-taught Soe Myint Sein (b. 1955) does not lack in the skills department in his depiction of rural scenes and tribespeople like the Kayins.

The painting expedition was covered by a two-member Myanmar International TV (MITV) team including Aye Aye Kyin.

A brainchild of the flamboyant Turkish- Canadian humanist artist Atanur Dogan, the IWS, which held its first “festival” in January 2012, now boasts some 90 chapters and counting. The IWS network, along with other events such as the World Water Media and the Qingdao Watercolor Biennale and Salon, has catapulted the art of watercolours to dizzying heights when it seemed headed for the doldrums only some 10 years ago. In 2015 Qingdao celebrated 300 years of watercolours in China with a major exhibition, while dedicated international watercolour museums were opened in Handan and Zhuji in March and October 2017 respectively.

The IWS and others of its ilk like Urban Sketchers (started 2007) – besides art fairs and festivals – have made art a potent vehicle for bringing people together in a truly global village, fostering a better understanding of the different cultures and arts of the host countries. These are greatly aided by ease of communication, mostly real-time, with social media platforms like Facebook and customised chat-rooms and even video-calling, besides the plethora of budget airlines.

Ooi Kok Chuen has written 88 books and catalogues on art. He is a recipient of the Australian Cultural Award 1991 and Goethe-Institut Fellowship 1989, and a two-time National Art Gallery Art-Writer of the Year (2003, 2008).

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