Thavibu| Contemporary Art from Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar/Burma

RITES AND RITUALS – THE ART OF AUNG KYAW HTET (4 October, 2007)


from AUNG KYAW HTET - Myanmar Inspirations


In the past decade Aung Kyaw Htet’s art has addressed the meeting of his culture and personal nature in the broadest sense. His work is a meditation on his world and the space and things around it that reflects a consciousness of the materiality of Myanmar’s deeply rooted Buddhist culture. Through his art, Aung Kyaw Htet has sought to stimulate everyday experiences from the commonplace to the exceptional through the fluid status with which he reconfigures ancient rituals across time. What is perhaps most interesting is the manner in which he positioned his work and practice to reveal the beauty in the simplicity of his world.


Depicting traditional Myanmar culture in contemporary art has almost become a tradition amongst the country’s modern day painters. At a time when the traditional boundaries between Myanmar and the rest of the world are very blurred - the cultural environment that has been created is challenging in that it has become an important hallmark of social wellbeing. Though tradition is a subject that can be questioned, yet as a starting point it may be explored as part of an exercise in self - definition given the fluid and global environment where technology has collapsed borders and physical distances. And like in many Asian societies, western secular culture and the conspicuous consumption that most often goes along with, the liberal values of western democracy are often viewed as alien and decadent and more so in the traditionally conservative Myanmar society.


Despite mirroring the popular narrative of the basic rituals and values that encompass Buddhism in Myanmar, Aung Kyaw Htet has established for himself a distinct paradigm that emphasizes his very individual artistic grammar - for his is a practice that endeavors to cross cultural boundaries. In essence, his challenge has been to make art that is highly personal as well as broadly meaningful while addressing the experiences of the world he lives in. In effect - what sets Aung Kyaw Htet’s subjects apart is that his efforts are not superficial or self-conscious efforts to showcase his heritage and tradition as merely decorative art.


Aung Kyaw Htet’s work has also investigated the potential to extend his subjects with an emotion that extends beyond being merely pictorial as his practice takes on meaning in his now well - known depiction of novice monks and nuns under the relentless weight of the ritual practices of monastic life. More than simply marking a pictorial turn, his works that date back from the last decade are consistently inherent in its representation. In opposition to contemporary taste for “story-pictures” - complicated, detail laden based on literary subjects, Aung Kyaw Htet has all his life been able to observe life directly and render these subjects as strong compositions.


Very much an individualist, Aung Kyaw Htet still sees himself as an ordinary working man whose occupation is the expression of life through painting, which is his passion: all other media within which he has worked in the past were merely means to make a living although these experiences of rigorous labour have molded how he views his life and art. This has allowed his work to be sensitive and alive and also to develop his distinctive style of painting that has resulted in art that is richly detailed and self consciously beautiful and that could ultimately converse independently in the history of Myanmar contemporary art.


At first glance, the presence of the identifiably Myanmar dimension is acutely visible in his work. However upon closer viewing, it becomes clear that Aung Kyaw Htet’s portraits and imagery are suffused with a deeply felt understanding of Buddhist values. His finely rendered portraits of both family and strangers are monumental - not in the size of the painting but rather in the scale of the emotion of the moment. What is noticeably apparent in almost all of his figures is a stillness - as if they are at peace with the world - a condition that he associates with the spirituality of Buddhism. The meditative sense of calm that his paintings evoke becomes for Aung Kyaw Htet a visual analogue typical of his own personality and the cultural environment that he has created in his world.


When Aung Kyaw Htet participated in his first exhibition in 1991 his early works were all rendered in charcoal, simply due to his limiting financial condition at the time, nevertheless displaying his masterly rendering of the discipline. One of the earliest and most influential guideposts in his life was his father, U Tun Hlaing whose own life was devoid of material comfort but whose principles of truth and honesty became a fundamental social philosophy for his son.


When in 1994, Aung Kyaw Htet actively started painting in oils - his family became willing subjects for his picture making. A later painting of his father simply titled My Father, 1998 reveals an intimacy that is suggestive of his own emotional response to his father. This interpretation through the compositional element is exemplified through the element of light that highlights the influence of humanity through the laboring hands of his father. The painting provides a sense of understanding of Aung Kyaw Htet’s early life and place. Painted from a similar mental vantage point, but with a softer rendering is Mother 2003. Aung Kyaw Htet portrays his mother, Daw Kyi bathed with the same compositional element of light. In both these paintings, his subjects are humanized by the portrayal of the essence of his subjects: by capturing them in thoughtful moments, Aung Kyaw Htet has recorded intimate moments and not merely the physical beauty of the scene.


Aung Kyaw Htet‘s main subjects are people: for him these figures have become symbols of mankind’s presence to identify place in the physical world. He has been able to observe the smallness of man in the vastness of the all encompassing spiritual which become the foundations of his luminist portraits - a subliminal spirituality created by the use of light and compositional elements. In his youth, Aung Kyaw Htet would observe nature over and over again - at all times of day and absorb its inherent beauty. Indeed, Myanmar is a land blessed with an abundance of unspoiled beauty and although Aung Kyaw Htet does not view himself as a landscapist, land and place has been an important key to his self-definition.


Aung Kyaw Htet’s Mauyaw Lakee, 1999 - is a celebration of nature in its sublime detail. He depicts creation with remarkable verism that suggests that his landscape is Edenic. He strove to capture the vast and transparent nature of the scene and in doing so speaks of a divine presence. The mood of the painting is serenely still and through the careful arrangement of light and composition, Aung Kyaw Htet has transformed the mundane daily activity of villagers fishing into a sweeping vision of dignity - spelling out the fact that he has never required any palatial settings to enhance his own dignity. However, as his figures load their catch in the foreground of the composition - underscoring the significance of the human endeavor, it calls attention to grander things . With its regular geometry and quiet amplitude as the water reflects the sky, Aung Kyaw Htet’s landscape bespeaks solemn dignity.


In another landscape, In The Village 2002 set on Myanmar’s famed Inlay Lake in Shan State, Aung Kyaw Htet exchanged the somber and subtle intensity of his palette for a brighter one . Though he continued to retain his love for the elemental qualities of the daily rhythms - his early experience as a poster artist is clearly evident in his careful observations among the crowd of market vendors. The small drama of activity and the act of viewing becomes the unwritten imperative of Aung Kyaw Htet’s landscape by inviting the viewer to see along with his figures.


In the tradition of Theravada Buddhism that is practiced in Myanmar, the basis and discipline of the Sangha, the body of monks, have been defined since as early as the Pyu era by their communal living in monasteries that is supported by the lay communities. The importance of the rituals such as the collecting and giving of alms are deemed significant to both the monks whose livelihoods are sustained by donations: normally food on a daily basis and gifts of robes and utensils on ceremonial occasions. But importantly the donor gains merit for offering the donation or gift - an important act in advancing towards Nirvana or Enlightenment. Despite the austerity associated with the practice and the countless rituals that have been handed down through the generations, the tradition that once encompassed a history filled with ancient art forms have now inspired a new aesthetic with a different approach - the Western practice of painting, which refers to Myanmar’s practice of contemporary modern art.


Recent artistic scholarship in Myanmar has found popular subject matter in the representation of monkhood especially by the time Aung Kyaw Htet actively adapted the subject to his own artistic vocabulary by the late 1990’s when he discovered a new level of freedom in his art. Since the start of his career, he engaged his art with ordinary people going about their everyday lives. For the same reason he was drawn to painting monks as part of the elements of his own being and culture. Aung Kyaw Htet had always been well aware of the sameness of subject amongst Myanmar artists whose interpretations are often defined from an academic training that did not allow for much self-expression, resulting often in visual appealing but very literal translations.


Aung Kyaw Htet has held the point of view that his art was to be rendered directly from the source and never as a fabrication of design - thus needing a direct connection with the monks and their surroundings. He often recalls his own period of monkhood when as a young boy he willingly followed the rigorous rituals. Aung Kyaw Htet savored the experience, for though he was given a glimpse of monastic living, he was most appreciative of the comfort of and warmth that was espoused by the camaraderie of the monks despite the conformity of rituals.


Over time as he gained a greater emotional independent spirit, he was able to infuse his work with this same emotional content that would become the foundation of his own standing. More than ever, he painted young monks and novice nuns employed in the simplicity of ongoing daily routine with a depth and authenticity that poignantly captures the abundant joy of childhood. In these messages that are impregnated with colour and rhythm reflect the artist’s own happy reunion with his youth - reflections of his inner self with the colour and lines containing his character and message.


Aung Kyaw Htet’s world is that of the private and emotionally intimate made public by such a culturally personalized imagery that issues of sentiment are submerged. Traditionally in the oriental context, sentiment is an area of nostalgia that is often regarded as retarding towards creativity. In this respect, Aung Kyaw Htet could be considered as a traditionalist and though his art does not possess the decorative luxuriance of traditional Buddhist art - but in the same vein, he has created a movement to himself. In his work, his poverty, labor, traditions, and religion are words that can be used to grasp his world vision .


With this objective as his motivation, his earlier paintings of monks were aptly portrayed as part of a cultural landscape through which he relives a world of apparent innocence regardless of the whirlwind of complex frictions of the present. It inspired him to create a body of work such as Offering Rice I, 2000 Shwe Inn Bin Monastery, 2000 and Young Novices, 2000 wherein the common grammar is defined by rituals and objects such as the lacquer alms bowls and umbrellas and homage is paid to the everyday rituals. By their presence, these figures that orchestrate the canvasses are most often viewed literally but do initiate a dialogue with the spectator.


Red and maroon are the traditional colors of monks’ robes in Myanmar - hues that he often uses to reinforce the symbolic significance of the works. This is because, despite the originality of the plastic organization of his art, which form part of the personality and history of the Buddhist culture, their effect is universally easily accessible and their meaning readily understood.


In much of his earlier paintings, Aung Kyaw Htet willingly followed the rigorous training guidelines of the academic system of realist composition - a predominantly European tradition of painting introduced into Myanmar during the early twentieth century when talented artists studied abroad and introduced the academy into the Myanmar modern art tradition. At The Monastery, 2002 is detailed with icons of Myanmar’s cultural architecture. However, his emotional spirit was starting to chafe at the academic restrictions of his art training: he started to pour out his emotions in his work as in Three Monks, 2003 where the camaraderie amongst the young monks are vividly expressed. Novice with Puppy, 2003 is filled with tenderness that highlights simple childhood playfulness. For Aung Kyaw Htet this period was one rich in experimentation.


He discovered a new freedom in his art, especially in his ability to explore a variety of styles and approaches. Certainly his rapport with his subjects remained ever present - which he started to magnify with a glowing palette as in Shaving 2001. Familiar with luminosity of strong light, he would at times illuminate his canvasses with an incandescence of color that worked with direct mark making as in Offering Rice II was still not deprived of transparency for at the same time he could capture the brutal radiance of the tropical light and the extreme softness of his subjects - a depiction of his mother, Daw Kyi offering alms to a novice monk - revealing the duality of love and hope.


Parallel to this chromatic harmony were the new dimensions of his creativity. Within all his works there are undoubtedly iconographic links to his Myanmar Buddhist roots, but Aung Kyaw Htet’s work was taking on a universality and humanism that would be identifiable by most cultures. Under The Sun, 2002 and The Little Helper 2007 are typical examples of his ability to capture and render the elements of his culture in its reality. The symbolic narrative of the young helper that would reappear in later paintings is in keeping with everyday reality of life in Myanmar’s Buddhist tradition.


Aung Kyaw Htet’s more recent scholarship has focused on the robes of the monks. In ancient Indian Buddhist fables, when autumn leaves were shed from trees - their colors changing from yellow and orange to brown - he season symbolized the ending of physical existence . Thus yellow symbolized the color of renunciation and as such remains symbolic to the Sangha or monkhood, with the elder senior monks most often draped in darker maroon or ochre robes and the younger monks donned in brighter hues. A monk’s robe consists of three garments as is depicted in the painting Two Novices In Red 2006: an inner waistcoat, an upper robe and an outer robe that is a two by three meter length of cotton fabric stitched in a patchwork of a hundred pieces resembling the layout of a rice field.


The monks robes - the history of which dates back to the lifetime of Buddha Gautama himself has nourished Aung Kyaw Htet’s creativity. The subject has inspired him to create a new body of work that has been reinforced through the narrative function of the intense use of color that despite its originality of composition remains an integral part of his culture. The symbolic narrative that he has created through the ethereal pictorial of paintings such as in Draping The Robes 2007 as well as in Monk In Yellow Robes, 2006 though it has become part of a poetic repertoire which is in keeping with a world past and present, it is in no way a flight from reality. Instead its unique translucent qualities it represents his very independence from a conformist genre of art for in this visual poetry is the manifestation of an ancient custom tinged with the mystic and divine experience - calm and assured of itself.


Although it is evident that there has been definite influences in Aung Kyaw Htet’s artistic journey - he has remained independent and too elusive to be categorized. Painting is a religion, a rite of passage and a ritual to be followed everyday for Aung Kyaw Htet. Each day brings to him a new lesson and a new challenge to his palette and canvass. While many might struggle to find beauty in mundane things, he finds in them a spiritual connection because he does not allow himself to forget the hardships of his earlier years.


Pursuing the life of a fine artist had been Aung Kyaw Htet’s constant dream since he was a young boy in Kan Ywa. The transition from a life of poverty in rural Myanmar to an internationally recognized artist has been a journey that was full of uncertainty. He has achieved his goal through his devotion and dedication to his beliefs and dreams and remains humble and grounded in the face of this success.


Shireen Naziree
Art Historian and Independent Curator, Malaysia