Interview: MYANM/ART with Nathalie Johnston
Curator Nathalie Johnston has created a new kind of art space in Yangon driven by a desire to foster experimentation, community and nurture a nascent market with big potential. Here she discusses adopting an alternative business model, pushing boundaries and why artists must be included in the city’s growth.
Myanm/art works with artists who experiment and prefer to push boundaries through their chosen medium and concept. But in Myanmar itself, there are few spaces which encourage such experimentation. Most galleries require artists to pay per day to rent the space, so exhibitions only last three or four days. So while the artists might be able to show something new in that short period, they have little time to prepare the press and texts necessary to explain their own work.
At Myanm/art we do not rent the space to artists. It is free for them to use. But we do like to plan ahead and give them a proper debut, with good media coverage and information for the audience to learn more about what the artists in Myanmar do.
Beyond the space, we try to connect with other artists and galleries by giving Art Tours. We realize that everyone has different tastes and needs when it comes to art, and Myanm/art might not have what some are looking for. But what we can offer is to widen the scope of people’s knowledge of Myanmar art.
At Myanm/art, I am really lucky because most artists come to me with ideas. We work together and produce a show that they can be proud of. I want artists to feel comfortable expanding.
I like artists to push themselves and I would prefer them to try a new style or veer off from their normal series. They don’t need to show something that sells, or something that connotes a beautiful and Buddhist Burma. They can perform, recite poetry, play music, display installation, paintings, photography, etc.
Buddhism is obviously a massive influence on the artists here and many of them will paint beautiful pictures of temples and Buddha’s face. Of course I can appreciate this type of series, but what I ask them to do is to try to speak about Buddhism without the realist approach. In what other ways can we communicate this ancient philosophy without actually seeing Buddha’s face?
The Re-Pat, Artist Soe Yu Nwe
Soe Yu Nwe wrote to me when she was planning to move back to Yangon. This is a common story these days – the Myanmar “re-pat” who has decided to move back to Myanmar to invest in the economy and the culture and really contribute. For years, I’ve befriended these re-pats and been in awe of their drive and talent, their ability to keep one foot in both worlds. Soe Yu Nwe is one of them, and her experience in the US was rooted in art, specifically ceramics. While there is a tradition of pottery in Myanmar, fine art ceramics never made their mark. And so most of the art community has never seen this kind of work in their own country. I immediately said yes to Soe Yu having a show. Her work is not only stunning, it’s unique and distinctly Myanmar in its subject matter.
We collaborated with Fargfabriken to produce their Building Blocks project in Yangon. They are an organization based in Stockholm that focuses on art, architecture and society.
Building Blocks is a project that focuses on children’s visions of a transitioning city. We worked with a local school in Yangon and four local architects. Over six months, we hosted workshops where the kids envisioned and drew their dream homes, and the job of the architects was to render this project in 1:1 scale. Then Fargfabriken funds the project to be built. It’s a brilliant way to show young kids how accessible architecture can be, and learn from young professionals.
We built the structure designed by the kids and architects in a public park on Strand Road. It is Fargfabriken’s first outdoor Building Blocks project.
Back to the future
Within Myanmar, I think the art community has a long road ahead, albeit an exciting one. I would like to see the Myanmar community in general – political and economic especially – recognize that the artists can contribute to the expansion of Yangon. It would be great if the artists could organize into some kind of official union or organization, in order to build a relationship with the Ministry of Culture and the local schools. I would also like to see the artist community become more inclusive of different gender and ethnic identities.
With regard to the international, I hope that the art world recognizes what Myanmar has been through in recent history, and give more credit where credit is due. I have encountered a lot of doubt on the part of international art experts about the quality of art in Myanmar. But a recently opened country does not have the luxury of entering an international art scene without the help and support of a global audience.
I want to see an art museum grow up in Yangon, to see Myanmar as part of Venice Biennale, to host international artists in Yangon and organize collaborations between communities. There is plenty of room to grow!
If Myanm/art can continue to serve the art community in its three current mechanisms of: exhibition space for curated shows, gallery for the sale of promotion of Myanmar art, and the library (MARCA) as the education and archive wing of the space, I would be incredibly happy.
Myanm/art was not begun on a whim. It is the culmination of my art research and experiences in Myanmar since 2009, but more than that, it is a passion project. So, in five years time, I would like my passion to also be self-sustaining, where I can focus purely on Myanm/art’s outreach as well as the community it serves.
Myanm/art was set up in April 2016.
For further information visit https://myanmartevolution.com