Asia's Next Art Boom

Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
Savvy collectors are heading to Burma.

Like a swarm of insatiable locusts, Asian-art collectors have been feasting on contemporary Chinese works for several years now, pushing prices ever higher at recent auctions. In Southeast Asia, aficionados have focused on Indonesian and Vietnamese artists, often praised for their technique. Now, with those prices rising out of reach, too, attention is turning to another little-known nation in the region: Burma. While still only a blip on the radar screen of the international art world, the totalitarian country is increasingly attracting the interest of cutting-edge collectors.
It's not an easy market to crack. A repressive military regime restricts not only access to the country and its artists but also what those artists can portray in their work. Even so, Burmese works are increasingly visible in museums and galleries throughout Asia. Curators for the Singapore Art Museum have traveled regularly to Burma since 1993; the museum now owns 150 works by Burmese artists, "mainly older masters but a few contemporary artists as well," says Low Sze Wee, assistant director for exhibitions and collections at SAM. The National Art Gallery of Malaysia recently purchased works by six living Burmese artists, while Japan's Fukuoka Asian Art Museum has also bought several contemporary pieces. Winning a place in such museums greatly enhances the value of these artists in the eyes of collectors, says Jorn Middelborg, managing director of the Thavibu Gallery in Bangkok.
So far only a handful of Burmese artists have really made it big. They include impressionist master U Lun Gywe, famed for his fluid brush strokes depicting rain-soaked landscapes, and Min Wae Aung and Pan Gyi Soe Moe, known for their photo- realist paintings of Buddhist monks, nuns and novices in saffron robes. And while prices for their works have remained relatively stable for years, averaging $10,000 to $20,000, some upcoming artists, like devout Buddhist Aung Kyaw Htet, are commanding prices 50 percent higher than they were two years ago. "We still sell works by Aung Kyaw Htet for around $3,000 to $4,500, but prices are on the increase as interest in contemporary art from Southeast Asia seems to follow the trails of Chinese and Indian art," says Middelborg.
Technically, the works are very accomplished. Isolated from the rest of the world for decades, Burmese artists until recently embraced impressionism and realism as the main forms of artistic expression. The country's fine-art institutions have always emphasized technique through their focus on apprenticeship and the study of old masters. But content-wise, artists have not been allowed to stray from landscapes, temples or portraits of the nation's peoples in idealized, happy poses. That creates what local artists refer to as "the monk trap," since those are the works that dominate the market.
Yet the easing of restrictions on travel and the slow opening of the country to outside influences are starting to change that. "The majority of the artwork is still figurative--I would say, in higher proportion than most emerging countries--but there is more abstract and conceptual art coming out," says New Zealander Gill Pattison, owner of the River Gallery in Rangoon. "The process is very slow, so it's more an evolution than a revolution."
Though artists are limited in terms of subject matter, many are starting to experiment with new techniques, giving a more contemporary touch to traditional subjects. "Traditional images remain at the core of many artists' work today," says Veronica Howe, an independent art consultant in Singapore. "They fulfill a market demand for nostalgia. However, these images have been joined by the more hard-edged, raw and challenging works of some of the contemporary artists." Kyaw Zay Yar, 28, mixes collage with acrylic paint and tissue paper to give texture to his paintings, while Nann Nann, 32, uses gold-leaf squares in her Buddhism-inspired abstract paintings.
There are now about 20 art galleries in Rangoon--mainly small extensions of artists' studios--and international art lovers are increasingly making the trek to the small former capital to buy directly from the artists, says May Thanda Oo of Arty Art Gallery, which promotes Burmese artists in Singapore. A few Burmese works will also appear at the Lasarati auction in Singapore later this month. To those who helped send the market for Chinese and Indian art into the stratosphere, it's all starting to sound very familiar.
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