Myanmar artists reflect changing political clime
Visiting University of Hong Kong professor Ian Holliday brought a selection of 10 contemporary paintings by Myanmar artists for the exhibit, “Altered State: Painting Myanmar in a Time of Transition” in the Galleria, Baker Center for the Arts, Muhlenberg College.
While visiting and studying Myanmar as a political science professor, Holliday began collecting contemporary paintings from artists he met.
In a talk he gave at Muhlenberg, Holliday described how Burma, a former British colony, later renamed Myanmar, was ruled by repressive military-backed regimes from 1962-2011.
The junta, infamous for its human rights abuses, also engaged in heavy-handed censorship of the arts. Journalists and novelists were subject to prepublication censorship, with columns and whole pages cut from publications.
For artists, political works were forbidden, along with nudity and abstract art. The colors white, black and red were declared taboo. Holliday said, “White, because they saw as so pure it would somehow reflect badly on the regime itself, a hidden critique of the regime; black, because it was too doom laden, and red was the color of revolution.”
During the more than 50 years of military control, painters who wanted to display their work in a public gallery would first hang up the entire show. Come morning, the artist and the gallery owner would meet with the censorship board. If the censors had a problem with a painting, the artist would be called over to explain it to them.
According to Holliday, “If they deemed it unfit for exhibition, they would take it off the wall, stamp it ‘Not fit for exhibiting’ and take it away.” Fortunately, for the artist, the work would be returned after six months. Once the board was done reviewing the works in the gallery, a certificate would be displayed to state that the exhibition had been approved. With censorship and the country’s long-standing isolationism, it was difficult for a painter to make a living.
Holliday explained how the present government has attempted a break with authoritarianism, especially in regards to the arts. With relaxed censorship under the regime, contemporary artists have enjoyed their new-found freedom creating works that break all of the former rules.
Holliday is vice-president and pro-vice-chancellor of teaching and learning at the University of Hong Kong and takes undergraduate students to teach in Myanmar.
The paintings displayed at Muhlenberg represented a cross-section of the work Holliday has collected. “Altered State: Painting Myanmar in a Time of Transition” was on display through June 4. Much of the art collection can be viewed online at: thukhuma.org.