Thursday, November 11, 2010

PostHeaderIcon Seed of Female Power Cultivated Beneath Yangon Arts Festival

Seed of Female Power Cultivated Beneath Yangon Arts Festival

MVV/ Yangon-- The late rainy season, strategically known as the “Green Season” in certain countries in order to promote tourism, was endowed with ideal weather for holding outdoor activities. To be sure, Myanmar is one of the more interesting destinations during the verdurous “green season.” Lucky for me, as I was invited there during  such a nice time of year.
From September 2-6, 2010, the Multimedia Art Festival got underway, both indoors and out, as a platform for Burmese and international artists to share their thoughts and art in Yangon, Myanmar. The festival was held at Dagaung Gallery.  “Blue Wind” led by female artist, Mrs. Phyu Mon, teamed up with writer Khun Mya Zin, author of the seminal work, “Myanmar Women Artists,” along with artist “Mo Cahr”. They organized the event with generous funds from the Netherland’s Crown Prince.   This was such an amazing experience that I would like to share it.

Visa Matters

I was invited to the festival through a recommendation from Varsha Nair and Keiko Sei, two good friends in Bangkok.  I accepted the invitation immediately, despite the extremely short notice prior to commencement, and a circulating rumor about the difficulty of obtaining a Burmese Visa in the shadow of the coming election. But as a Thai national, it took only 2 working days to process the visa in Bangkok. A Japanese friend also attending the trip had the same experience. When I arrived at Yangon’s Mingaladon Airport on September 3rd, however, I saw some westerners lined up for the Visa on Arrival. This was a curiosity to me, as I had learned from my travel agent that the Visa on Arrival would be cancelled as of September 1st, 2010.  For myself, the visa process was easy and fast, but when I called to the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok, they said there’s no guaranteeing anything. In sum, the best way get into Myanmar is to apply at an embassy before you travel. Sometimes the duration of the process depends on your nationality. As far as I know, American citizens need about one month time for processing.
I’m telling you about all these visa issues because I was the ONLY invited foreigner who was able to participate in the festival. The rest had difficulty with the visa and could not come.

Art Space and People

When I arrived at Dagaung Gallery, where the “Multimedia Festival” was exhibited, I first met some artist and writer friends from Myanmar. The art was displayed on walls and installations both indoors and out. In the gallery’s lone room, two of the four walls were devoted to art, while the other two were used as a projection screen and backdrop to a stage for presentations and performances.  It was a small, crowed room for the functions, yet a warm, friendly environment, as well.
We sat on the floor in Dagaung Gallery while writers and artists presented their work. Most of participants were women. Nearly all of them dressed in traditional Burmese costumes. The clothes of most Burmese women cover the majority of their body, from neck to arms all the way down to the ankles. Seeing the clothes in such fullness reveals the weaving technique, as well as the patterns on the fabric, highlighted by the curve of the female figure. Observing them inspired me to buy Burmese longgyis (skirt) at Bogyoke Aung San Market the following day. Bogyoke Aung San is the main market for tourists; an elegant colonial-era building bustling with vendors selling a variety of products. In Yangon there are over 40 such colonial-era buildings.

An artist demonstrates through audience participation. Photo by Phyu Mon.

Art Festival and Art Works

The art work on display at the festival was a collection of various forms, including paintings, mixed media, photography, video documentaries, soft sculpture installations, performance art and also writing. The artists in attendance included more than just the visual arts variety. After all, the definition of “Multimedia” for this festival comprises various communicative forms (visual, textual and action-based), instead of the new media as the term is typically applied in the West.
In this context, the title “multimedia art festival” is meant to represent the works from artists and journalists who express their thoughts in a variety of forms. It is also meant to support the often-heard adage that “Everyone can be an artist” in a tangible way. This festival can be a good step towards sustaining the Burmese arts community in the near and long-term future by using discussion and criticism a means of advancing the artistic process.
Methods for Art Development
In the “Multimedia Art Festival,” the majority of presentations were given in Burmese language, which I don’t understand at all. Being the lone foreigner in attendance made finding a Burmese-English translator a difficult task. Luckily, one of the organizers, Mon Mon Myat, who was also a participating artist, attended on the day I presented my work and was able to translate my talk into Burmese. Mon Mon Myat is also a journalist, with a network spanning throughout the Mekong region and one of our authors at Mekong Media’s Voice.
The turning point of the project began here. During my presentation, the audience seemed genuinely interested. However, because of the difficulty in understanding numerous pieces of foreign conceptual art at once, most in attendance were a bit befuddled by the overall meaning. One member of the audience said she needed time to understand and get a feeling about each work. Then at 5 PM, without notice, the crowds began to leave, claiming that it was time to return home to their families. Personally, I felt this was a premature departure, but it was also really interesting to see this phenomenon unfold. 
After the festival, this matter was discussed with fellow artists in Bangkok and plans were made to assist Burmese artists in creating a training program. In this way, it will facilitate artists to develop their careers in an academic way through direct supervision of experienced artists, while creating a forum for discussion and criticism as a practice of the artistic process. The premature ending of the festival due to domestic responsibilities on part of the participants is a critical issue. To avoid this problem I suggest holding the training somewhere completely outside of Yangon.  It would be beneficial for female artists to be free of family obligations for a while. In this way, I hope that their souls and minds will open up to new ideas and concepts, while giving them the flexibility and support to develop together.
Stay tuned, I’ll write more about it if the program is realized.

(A work of art at the Multimedia Arts Festival, Yangon by May Moe Thu)

The Government Involvement

One point that some might be curious about is whether or not the government closely monitors such events? Well, here is what I can share. One day, while we listen to a writer read her poem, the organizer made indicated to her that she should stop reading. Suddenly, most of people in attendance took a break.  Two Burmese men entered the gallery and were treated respectfully from organizers, artists and journalists. I understood that they were officers from censorship office and it was their custom to do so. They walked slowly around the gallery to view the art on display and then left. After that, the reading resumed.

One of the organizers told me that before the festival began it was necessary to submit data sheets on both the artists and art works on display to the censorship bureau in order to get permission to present the art in public. If anything is deemed inappropriate, then the organizer must not show the work. I had a similar experience in Vietnam, as well, though under a slightly different set of rules. For example, in Vietnam the critical subjects of politics, government and religion are forbidden. While I observed the participants, I began to think that they didn’t intend to break any rules, they knew or they know what they can and can’t do. They are more willing to get together, spent time and learn from each other through creative activities. Nevertheless, every time the censorship officers showed up in this festival, some works were considered for being taken off display.(End/24/10/10)


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