Yangon. March 2015. How lucky am I? I have arrived to find a hidden gem of an exhibition in a 1920’s villa, presented by Goethe Institut and curated by Iola Lenzi. Direct and poignant, the nine artists have plenty to say. The taxi driver took a while to find the place, not expecting a couple of caucasians to be looking for a building in a residential area. Luckily my companion spoke some Myanmar otherwise I’m not sure I would have found it. Pulling up at the gate we saw the grand villa standing back behind a high wall, surrounded by trees and bougainvillea. A sign of a prosperous past. Alongside the surprisingly green lawn we spotted a trail of flip fops leading up to the steps of the villa. The first artwork. Myanmar artist Chaw Ei Thein had invited people to inscribe the names of students who were killed in the 1988 Yangon protests onto used rubber slippers, possibly slippers they’d owned, I don’t know. It’s reported that at least 3,000 people were killed in the protests.
Walking from the dark hallway into the first bare, white room was like walking in on a dinner party where all the guests had left suddenly. A large dining table was laid with a crisp white cloth and the remains of a formal dinner sat there attracting the flies. Vietnemese artist Dinh Q. Le’s work Aung San’s Dinner is an imagined re-enactment of a dinner held by Aung San at the villa sometime in 1947, the guide told us. Twelve of Yangon’s cultural cognoscenti had been invited to participate in a performance of the dinner a few days before. The guests’ sudden departure was still palpable. Everything in mid flow and interrupted.
Education is a big issue in Myanmar. An official guide had told me the literacy rate is 94% but a google search tells me only 1.2% of the Government’s budget is spent on education. Yadanar Win’s work A long range of perspectives is a readable participatory installation set in a darkened room, inviting the viewer to browse the books piled up around a spot-lit chair. The books are school text books in English or Myanmar, with blank paper covers. I noticed a smell of soot. Looking closely the books are piled on top of burned rice husks.
Vasan Sitthiket’s woodblock prints presented with the original woodblocks alongside, fill a large room and speak their mind. Life-size, I liked their directness. A monk stands with his bowl turned upside down in protest “If people starving monks have nothing to eat too” recalling the Saffron Rebellion. A woman holds a parasol inscribed with “Can we choose our own future.” A headless figure shows “The man who has his brain in his cock.”
Though beginning to open up, there are still restrictions on freedom of expression, so I had thought it may prove difficult to find work like this in Yangon. I was delighted to find otherwise. Artists Bandual Srey (Cambodia) Chaw Ei Thein (Myanmar) Dinh Q. le (Vietnam) Khanh Bui Cong (Vietnam) Tun Win Aung (Myanmar) Vasan Sitthiket (Thailand) Wai Mar (Myanmar) Wah Nu (Myanmar) Yadanar Win (Myanmar) 1-15 March 2015 10am-7pm daily Goethe-Villa, 8 Ko Min Ko Chin (next to corner Nat Mauk Road)