Now that it’s opening up, maybe the paintings are a way for people outside to get a sense of what is going on inside Myanmar today. Let them see beyond the stereotypes.

Professor Ian Holliday

What strikes you first is the colour – vibrant pinks and purples, brilliant orange, yellow and, significantly as it turns out, red. “This art has come out after 50 years of drabness – of socialism in Burma – and 25 years of military dictatorship. You’d expect perhaps something dark, depressing, or at least subdued.”

Professor Ian Holliday, of the Department of Politics and Public Administration, is talking about the work of artists from Myanmar, artists who are finding new room for creative self-expression now that the country’s political reforms are unfolding. He recently held an exhibition, Painting the Transition: Contemporary Art in Myanmar, on campus of the works of some of these emerging artists. It was a vibrant example of how contemporary painters are capturing a society embarking on a new journey.

“During the worst years of the regime, creativity was stifled and artists either gave up entirely, or operated in secret, sharing their work only with trusted friends,” he says. “Political subjects were banned, as were images of Aung San Suu Kyi and the colour red – as it is the colour of the National League for Democracy (NLD).”

Professor Ian Holliday (left) and Professor Lui Tai-lok (right) at the exhibition

Professor Holliday has been visiting Burma for 10 years. “During the junta’s rule, there was no opportunity for research. But I kept going, kept talking to people, meeting my contacts and listening to what was going on. I gravitate naturally to civil society, and the artistic world tends to overlap with that, particularly in Yangon, so I found myself talking to artists – some political, others not.

On the quiet

“Some artists kept working on the quiet,” he says, “you would see them touting their work, hidden in carrier bags, around tea houses in Yangon and selling paintings for a few dollars.”

The Pansodan Gallery in Yangon was his main introduction to Myanmar’s art scene. Run since August 2008 by husband and wife team Aung Soe Min and Nance Cunningham, the gallery started out by working under the radar to connect painters with each other, and with potential buyers.

It has helped launch a new generation – though their ages range from early 20s to 70s – of alternative artists who have emerged since the relaxation of controls on society. Indeed, the Pansodan’s Aung Soe Min has made it his mission to rescue Myanmar’s lost artists. In one case, he took 10 blank canvases to the home of a former artist who hadn’t painted for years and was hesitant about starting again. He simply said: “Go on, paint again!”

The exhibition’s paintings are Professor Holliday’s own. “At first I bought at random, just a few pieces I liked. But gradually, I began to see these paintings as a way of opening a window on Myanmar. Most people have only a few images in their head – Aung San Suu Kyi, the military junta and possibly monks and the Saffron Revolution… that’s it.

“Now that it’s opening up, maybe the paintings are a way for people outside to get a sense of what is going on inside Myanmar today. Let them see beyond the stereotypes.”

The exhibition held at the Faculty of Social Sciences has draws a crowd of art aficionados
Professor Lap-Chee Tsui (third from left) attends the opening of the exhibition
Creativity everywhere

This new creativity is happening in other areas of the arts too – writers are giving readings at newly created literary festivals, musicians are being heard through rap and hip-hop, there is far more performance art on the streets of Yangon.

Professor Holliday staged the exhibition to coincide with the annual conference on Myanmar he has held at HKU for the past seven years. He invites experts, whose skills span academia, government and civil society and who come from Myanmar, China and the region.

Since 2008, he has also been taking students to the Thailand/Burma border to teach English to refugees and migrants living there. “The education system in Myanmar is hopeless,” he says, “the average person does 3.9 years of schooling. The NLD has a mission to improve social conditions including education, environment etc and has built an education network. Now we have students teaching inside Burma as well – there are currently about 15 teaching on the border and 15 inside.”

Professor Holliday would like the exhibition to go to a wider audience, and to expand it to something bigger – perhaps a festival to include film screenings, debate, and a chance to meet the artists. “The idea is to spread the message,” he says, “to open up the conversation on Myanmar.”