Myanmar's Young Artists and Activists Favorite 



Mar 1 2012


Yangon, Myanmar

In the country formerly known as Burma, these free thinkers are a force in the struggle for democracy.
By Joshua Hammer
Photographs by Adam Dean
Smithsonian Magazine, March 2011

Editor's Note, April 3, 2012:
The election of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi—the face of her nation’s pro-democracy movement—to Parliament opens a dramatic new chapter in Burma’s journey from oppressive military rule. Her supporters, from young artists seeking freedom of expression, to a generation of activists long committed to the struggle against the ruling generals—believe that a sea change is overtaking their society. We wrote about her supporters in March 2011.

The New Zero Gallery and Art Studio looks out over a scruffy street of coconut palms, noodle stalls and cybercafés in Yangon (Rangoon), the capital of Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma. The two-story space is filled with easels, dripping brushes and half-finished canvases covered with swirls of paint. A framed photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was released from seven years of house arrest this past November, provides the only hint of the gallery’s political sympathies.

An assistant with spiky, dyed orange hair leads me upstairs to a loft space, where half a dozen young men and women are smoking and drinking coffee. They tell me they’re planning an “underground” performance for the coming week. Yangon’s tiny avant-garde community has been putting on secret exhibitions in spaces hidden throughout this decrepit city—in violation of the censorship laws that require every piece of art to be vetted for subversive content by a panel of “experts.”

“We have to be extremely cautious,” says Zoncy, a diminutive 24-year-old woman who paints at the studio. “We are always aware of the danger of spies.”

Because their work is not considered overtly political, Zoncy and a few other New Zero artists have been allowed to travel abroad. In the past two years, she has visited Thailand, Japan and Indonesia on artistic fellowships—and come away with an exhilarating sense of freedom that has permeated her art. On a computer, she shows me videos she made for a recent government-sanctioned exhibition. One shows a young boy playing cymbals on a sidewalk beside a plastic doll’s decapitated head. “One censor said [the head] might be seen as symbolizing Aung San Suu Kyi and demanded that I blot out the image of the head,” Zoncy said. (She decided to withdraw the video.) Another video consists of a montage of dogs, cats, gerbils and other animals pacing around in cages. The symbolism is hard to miss. “They did not allow this to be presented at all,” she says.

The founder and director of the New Zero Gallery is a ponytailed man named Ay Ko, who is dressed on this day in jeans, sandals and a University of California football T-shirt. Ay Ko, 47, spent four years in a Myanmar prison following a student uprising in August 1988. After he was released, he turned to making political art—challenging the regime in subtle ways, communicating his defiance to a small group of like-minded artists, students and political progressives. “We are always walking on a tightrope here,” he told me in painstaking English. “The government is looking at us all the time. We [celebrate] the open mind, we organize the young generation, and they don’t like it.” Many of Ay Ko’s friends and colleagues, as well as two siblings, have left Myanmar. “I don’t want to live in an abroad country,” he says. “My history is here....”

Read the full story in Smithsonian Magazine online :

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