Opened in 2006 by New Zealander Gill Pattison, River Gallery is the heart of Myanmar’s blossoming contemporary art scene. It represents around 40 leading and emerging artists from the country working across a variety of media. Themes include daily life, natural landscapes and Buddhist monuments. Each year, in partnership with other galleries, River organises a series of group shows and solo exhibitions abroad for its artists.
“Myanmar artists suffered under a heavy censorship regime for sixty years, up until 2012,” explains the founder, resident in Yangon since 2002. “They had to be careful in their choice of subject; anything overtly political could not be shown, and nudity was completely banned. Also, the country was desperately isolated, few had internet access, not much foreign TV, no foreign books or magazines, and little travelling possible.”
In this environment, the vast majority of creative people painted what they saw around them, in either realistic or impressionistic styles – the tranquil beauty of the fields, ordinary faces, old pagodas. Now, artists are freer to express themselves, and there is a greater variety of work, including political or social commentary and reflections on the dizzying changes that people are experiencing.
Art education remains limited. It is not a part of the school curriculum. A couple of small and under-resourced art schools provide basic lessons (especially related to Buddhist icons and symbols) and teach some art history up till early 20th century. Yet initiatives like River have exposed artists to the international marketplace.
“They are now joining the global art world,” Gill Pattison continues. “Everyone has access to the internet, artists are travelling more than ever, foreign art professionals, including artists are beating a path to this exciting new art market, and Myanmar artists are exhibiting abroad more than ever before. It is very exciting to be part of that. The most interesting artists give the traditional subjects a contemporary twist, which helps audiences look at the familiar in new ways. Those were the kinds of artists I was seeking out when I was starting back in 2005, and still, largely, those are the kinds of works I continue to feature.”
If she could pick out one piece of work as a suitable representative of her gallery, Gill points to an installation called “Onward” by the artist Aung Ko (born 1980). Consisting of a rickshaw and five golden fibreglass human statues, this is a meditation on the stuttering progress of economic reforms in Myanmar.
The old, broken-down rickshaw is a metaphor for the country. The five golden men of the tableau represent the people who are most closely involved in guiding the reform process. One man is trying to pedal as well as steer, bent over with the effort. Two others face forward, along for the ride, but doing nothing to help; and one is sitting facing backward, looking downcast and depressed. The fifth man is pushing from behind, trying to get some forward momentum. The men are beautiful with their smooth golden skin, but they are also naked, something shameful in Myanmar society.
Aung Ko wanted to show that even though Myanmar is trying to improve, people are still ashamed of their lowly position in the global community. But at least they are “Ko Shwe” – Golden brothers – who recognise each other and have a certain solidarity. The artist says, “I want people to feel how hard it is to move forward, even when some of our leaders are really trying. But I also want to show that not everyone is helping – some just make it worse.”
This brilliantly realised and neatly executed installation is heavy with layers of meaning – economic, political, cultural, even ethical. “If I had shown this pre-2011,” says Gill. “I would have been sharing a cell in Insein Prison with Aung Ko, but now I am perfectly free to have it in the gallery.”
Check out a few paintings from River Gallery below.
Address: River Gallery, Chindwin Chambers, 33/35, 37th and 38th Street, Yangon, Myanmar
Contact: Tel – (951) 378617, (959) 784300936 | Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Images used with permission.