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Got hunger

In Myanmar, the act of pushing for freedom feeds a burgeoning arts scene

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Win Pe Myint's art studio is in Hlaing Thayar Township, away from the taxi-choked streets of downtown Yangon. The three-story L-shaped home is tucked in a neighborhood of ramshackle fruit stands, water bottle vendors, clothing peddlers and tiny food carts serving steaming curries. It's a far cry from the wide asphalt streets and brick-and-mortar businesses in Missoula. Street dogs sift through piles of colorful garbage. Children play along the dirt road, which brims with pedestrians and motorbikes carrying entire families. The place looks poor but feels rich with life.

Win Pe Myint, 67, is one of the most famous artists in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. Since 1977, he's been showing his works in solo shows for galleries across Asia. He has pieces at the National Museum of Yangon and in private collections across the world. His still lifes often focus on a single color. One oil painting, for instance, shows a mint green table from an angle as if the viewer is floating above it. The surface is filled with a variety of green objects—lime-colored vases, jalapeños, a turtle, long leaves poking from a cup, an emerald-colored bottle of wine, a clear wine glass that captures the green of the table and even green paint tubes, as if to show the tools used for the painting itself.

The staircase in Win Pe Myint's kitchen leads to his studio loft. The room feels more spacious than it is: reddish wood floors reflect the sunbeams and the tall doors to the balcony are wide open, giving the space an open-air feel.

The day I meet him, in late July, a handful of his art students have set up easels on the balcony to paint the afternoon away.

"I love to paint in the light," Win Pe Myint tells me as he sits cross-legged on the floor. His eyes shift to a gauzy red tote bag I'm holding. "It's so beautiful," he says, pointing at it. "You see how the light shines through?" I do. That's Win Pe Myint's primary vision—turning the ordinary into the exceptional.

Htoo Lwin Myo’s art performance “Becoming People” was part of 7,000 Padauk, a Yangon project spearheaded by artists Mrat Lunn Htwann and Nathalie Johnston
  • Htoo Lwin Myo’s art performance “Becoming People” was part of 7,000 Padauk, a Yangon project spearheaded by artists Mrat Lunn Htwann and Nathalie Johnston

I ask him why he paints still lifes. He tells me that before 1995 he painted anything that would sell. He took commissions. "But then I had a breakthrough in my mind," he says. "Now I paint for myself. I paint these because they make me happy. I am free from religion, free from politics. Free from everything."

From a U.S. foreigner's point of view, everything in Myanmar feels exceptional, too. My trip to the country was professional—the result of a fellowship through President Obama's Young Southeast-Asia Leadership Initiative, which is aimed at strengthening international networks to work toward peaceful relationships. It's a national program funded by state departments and administered through local organizations—in Missoula's case, the Mansfield Center.

In May, the Indy hosted two Southeast-Asian fellows, journalists Kamol Homklin from Thailand and Zin Mar Myint from Myanmar. After spending time with the journalists and showing them how the U.S. media works, I was given a plane ticket to spend almost two weeks in Myanmar to learn about the media culture there and to help Zin Mar Myint with launching an online journalism project. Along the way, she introduced me to a few artists and took me to a handful of galleries to satiate my art interests—something that initially seemed like a tangent from my main purpose. But I soon found that in Myanmar, a country governed by military until 2012 where citizens now face a purportedly free national election in November, art and the media go hand-in-hand.

One evening I met with Mrat Lunn Htwann at the House of Memories, a restaurant and living museum located in the former house of General Aung San, who is credited with wresting Myanmar from the grip of British colonization. It's apt because Mrat Lunn Htwann is kind of a rebel himself, a 34-year-old Arakanese performance artist and friend of Zin Mar Myint's, who grew up in the currently tumultuous state of Rakhine. Mrat Lunn Htwann is known in the Myanmar art scene—and across Asia—for, in particular, the 7,000 Padauk project, which he co-produced with American performance artist Nathalie Johnston.

In April 2013, the duo turned a soon-to-be-demolished building near the Yangon River into a performance space for one month. It was a place where Myanmar artists could leisurely practice art without government regulation. The result, documented in a book called 7000 Padauk, shows concrete rooms transformed into DIY galleries and event spaces, edgy even by American standards. One room displays the nude photographs of a female performance artist. In another, a man wears a papier-mâché mask of Burmese newspapers. Yet another room is filled with graffiti featuring the crumpled likeness of Mickey Mouse hung by a rope around his neck. It's titled "This is My Burma, Bitch."

Myanmar artist Ogre created this performance art piece, “https//www.media.com,” for Padauk 7000.
  • Myanmar artist Ogre created this performance art piece, “https//www.media.com,” for Padauk 7000.

"I have a friend who's still in prison for drawing a picture of the Buddha wearing headphones," Mrat Lunn Htwann tells me over sips of Myanmar beer. "As artists, we're excited. But we are still not sure what we can get away with doing."

From the outside, it's easy to romanticize an arts culture that has so much at stake. I know not to do that, though it's not always easy. In Missoula, we are lucky to be able to make art free from sanctioned punishment. Yangon's new art galleries occupy gorgeous but dilapidated structures—cracked with water damage and windows broken out. There are almost no funds to fix them. Still, it's exhilarating to stand in a building where art is thriving and the weather can freely blow through. The artists in Myanmar embody that same feeling.

Win Pe Myint calls it "hunger." Toward the end of my visit with him at his studio he shows me a self-portrait all in blue hues. I tell him his eyes look troubled. He nods in agreement. "I'm thinking about my country," he says, which surprises me. The sentiment seems to border on the political. But then he shows me another painting in blazing reds where a smile plays across his face. "And here," he says, "I'm thinking about how I believe very much in the life of an artist."

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