For many of us, art is a form of unbridled self-expression, free from rules and boundaries. It’s hard to imagine then that up until 2011, much of Burma’s creative output was stifled and free speech was curbed across the arts.
Although it’s never been banned per se, under the military junta art was heavily censored. Authorities were to be notified ahead of exhibitions – they could then be restricted for arbitrary reasons, like having paintings with the “wrong” colours (red or black were firm enemies). Abstract pieces with ambiguous meanings could also be particularly problematic.
But following the easing of censorship, the vibrant city of Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) is now teeming with galleries. A new generation of exceptional artists are emerging, with supportive curators exhibiting their work internationally. Revolutionary performance art, once hidden safely behind closed doors, is now developed openly and there’s always a class, seminar or open mic night to attend in the city.
Scope out the art scene while in the old capital to appreciate this unique history and see how artists here are flourishing.
1. Lokanat Gallery
A Yangon institution. While some would call Lokanat Gallery ramshackle, others would call it bohemian; this is a home for artists after all. Their “truth, beauty, love” motto is very fitting. Established in the 1970s as a non-profit NGO, it is the oldest art gallery in Yangon and displays both contemporary and traditional work.
The 1906 Sofaer building is an attraction in itself with high ceilings and Victorian floor tiles imported from the UK. While the building may have seen better days, the gallery is a charming stronghold of the arts in Yangon.
2. Pansodan Arts
At Pansodan Arts, space is at such a premium that paintings are strung up in rows on every wall, from floor to ceiling. They have an exciting and ever changing schedule of contemporary abstract works, line drawings, landscapes and photography exhibitions. Perhaps most fascinating of all though are the thousands of war-time propaganda posters and myriad of curios scattered throughout the building. Set aside a couple of hours to take it all in.
More than “just a gallery”, Pansodan is a hive of activity with networking events every Tuesday to clink glasses over the latest additions to the collection.
3. River Gallery / River Gallery II
Having outgrown their old premises in the famous Strand hotel, the River Gallery now occupies a trendy space in Chindwin Chambers. This swish colonial building, with its serene white-walled interior, was once home to a 1930s British law chambers. Unlike most of the galleries in Yangon it wasn’t founded by a Burmese artist, but by New Zealander Gill Pattison. She exhibits work from underrepresented artists in the area and partners up with international institutions every year to make the scene here more visible.
4. Inya Art Gallery
Self-taught abstract artist Aung Myint founded Inya Art Gallery in the garage of his own home in 1989. Born in 1946, he has witnessed the art scene in Yangon transform, and this new freedom of self-expression is reflected in his exhibitions.
In his words: “we love our country and wish to bring our traditional modern vision to the world and to open the eyes of our countrymen to greater possibilities in creativity”. The gallery reflects his interests in painting, large-scale installations and performance art, and he often holds workshops for local people.
5. New Zero Art Space
Not-for-profit gallery New Zero Art Space is a revolutionary outfit tucked behind Yangon’s Parkroyal Hotel. Residencies and exhibition opportunities for international artists give it a slightly different feel to the other galleries in the city; risque performance art, in particular, pushes the boundaries post-censorship. The work changes frequently, also displaying a range of contemporary paintings, sculptures and photography. Alongside some of their more radical work, they have a strong sense of community with an art library, regular seminars and free art classes for children.
6. Nawaday Tharlar Gallery
Curator of Nawaday Tharlar Gallery*, Ko Pyay Way left the Pansodan Gallery in 2011 to open a gallery/studio/coffee shop with his burgeoning collection of modern, contemporary and abstract art. Having grown hugely, an art lover could lose days looking through his collection of canvases – now spread out, scattered and stacked high against every wall. The gallery, next to the Parkroyal Hotel, also doubles up as a space for lively open mic nights for musicians, magicians and poets.
*Not to be confused with Nawaday Gallery, opened by ex-spy Khin Nyunt.
7. Gallery 65
The vibrant and forward-thinking Gallery 65 hides inside an unassuming colonial teak house on a quiet residential street. Only open for special exhibitions, rather than housing a permanent collection, the goal here is to remain fresh and original – you never know what’s coming next. Expect paintings, sculpture and photography, and work from established artists, such as the late Khin Maung Yung, alongside emerging artists.
8. KZL Studio and Gallery
From the bustling area around the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, KZL gallery is only a short drive, or half an hour walk. Based within a modern building in the peaceful area of Golden Valley though, it could be a world away. Founder and painter Khin Zaw Latt, the gallery’s namesake, works and lives here, and welcomes guests to the ground floor, dedicated to the work of 20 contemporary Burmese artists.
In 2011 he made waves with Just a Portrait, his depiction of Aung San Suu Kyi covered with small stamps of her father, General Aung San. Notable as the first permitted exhibit of her by the authorities, since then she has become a favourite muse for artists across Burma. A philanthropic venture, profits from the gallery have funded a school and art garden for local children, where Khin Zaw Latt teaches drawing once a week.
9. New Treasure Gallery
Min Wai Aung is a contemporary artist most famous for his colourful stylised depictions of Buddhist monks. Having received international acclaim for his work, he now focuses on nurturing a new wave of artists at the New Treasure Gallery, an unassuming apartment in the leafy area of Golden Valley.
10. Belmond Governor’s Residence
Not technically a gallery… Between May and September 2017, elegant colonial hotel Belmond Governor’s Residence will be hosting a new exhibition. “Sense of Place” is a collaboration between contemporary Burmese artists Than Htay, Thit Nay Sann and Ni Lar Tun. Their painted bamboo depictions of local culture and landscapes, displayed throughout the hotel, mark the beginning of the Belmond’s new art and music initiative. Artist-in-residence opportunities, music events and art dinners are to follow.
Mosey around Yangon’s art scene with an expert guide for a real insight into the art history of this region, and meet some of the curators of Yangon’s best art galleries on our Yangon’s Art & Antiques Insider Experience.