YANGON — In a sleek white suit, a ponytailed Myanmar man carries a metal cage with a dove inside as he enters a performance space in France. In his other hand, an open umbrella is inscribed on top with words like “peace,” “war” and “power.” He sets both items on the ground and removes a hand-held radio from his pocket to listen, waiting for news, but he hears nothing.
The audience is in for a surprise. The man begins wrapping bandages around his head and pulls out a tube of bright red lipstick, which he uses to paint roughly over the bandages now covering his lips. Then he kisses his onlookers, one by one, before returning to the discarded umbrella, which he burns, and the cage, which he opens to free the bird.
This is Aye Ko, a 50-year-old artist with a reputation in Myanmar for breaking the rules. A renowned performance artist in the long-isolated Southeast Asian country, he spent years criticizing the military regime through his body-based performances, which took him around the world—from Thailand to Indonesia, the United States and France, where he kissed the unsuspecting onlookers in 2011 as a commentary on his country’s prospects for peace.
But now, the artist from the Ayeyarwady River port city of Pathein is taking a temporary hiatus from performing until 2015, when Myanmar will hold its national elections and he hopes the political situation—which informs his performances—will become more clear. In the meantime, in addition to working on his paintings and installation art, he’s focusing on another task: training a new generation of younger artists who can continue testing the limits after his career is over, in a country where the arts have long been heavily censored and thus largely limited to the traditional.
“Museums here aren’t interested in contemporary art,” says the artist, who learned impressionist and realist painting in the mid-1980s and transitioned to performance art after spending time in prison for participating in the 1988 student-led protests. Confined to his cell, he lacked a canvas but realized he could still create art through his body. “It was the best way to express myself,” he says.
In Yangon, a number of galleries have sprung up in the past two years, after the quasi-civilian government came to power and allowed freer expression. But after decades of strict censorship and international isolation, contemporary art still lags behind. The country’s few diploma schools for the arts—all state-run—are conservative, with the National University of Arts and Culture in Yangon offering bachelor’s degrees only in traditional Myanmar arts. “Some teachers want to teach new methods, but the government is afraid,” Aye Ko says. “I need to promote the young generation.”
To fill the gap, he runs a variety of free art education programs at his New Zero Art Space, near the Park Royal Hotel in Yangon. The space, which also serves as a gallery and includes an art library, offers summer art classes for children; a six-month painting course for young adults; and an artist-in-residence program for visiting foreign artists. Last year, a yearlong program covered topics such as documentary art, performance art, installation art, curatorship and gallery management.
Among Aye Ko’s students is 26-year-old Yadanar Win, a Yangon native who has studied at New Zero since 2009. “This is the first place I learned about art,” she says, skimming a fat manual about a major contemporary art event in Singapore. “I liked art when I was younger but we didn’t have proper art schools. I went to government schools. I just drew as my hobby.”
In addition to painting, she picked up performance art three years ago. In a show last September, she dressed in white and approached men in the audience, painting their nails with red polish in a commentary on restrictive gender roles.
Aye Ko says performance art is a rather underground movement in Myanmar, and during the days of the former regime, it was a risky endeavor. Artists who performed did so illegally, and many were imprisoned. Today their work is safer, but still not easy. “As the only artist in my family and my environment, I’m struggling, especially with performance art, to gain acceptance,” says Yadanar Win. “My mom tries to understand, but the others aren’t interested—they think it’s weird.”
Hayy Mann Oo, 24, says her family has been more welcoming of her artistic endeavors. She joined New Zero’s curator training last year with seven other students and has since become a proud gallery manager at the space. “To manage New Zero is to manage the contemporary art scene here,” she says.
Options for art curators are limited in the country, she adds. At the National Museum in Yangon—the main museum for Myanmar art, history and culture—visitors can view folk art and 10 traditional arts, along with Buddhist statues and impressionist paintings. “It’s really traditional,” she says. “They never allow contemporary artists to exhibit.”
This is part of the reason why New Zero has gained so much respect among local artists. “As a privately run contemporary art school, New Zero is the only place in [Yangon] for young people,” says U Aung Soe Min, co-founder of the popular Pansodan Gallery in Yangon. “New Zero is what we really need here.”
And students who study at the space are paying it forward. Yadanar Win teaches drawing and painting to 5- to 15-year-olds in New Zero’s summer program, and she offers private lessons during the year at children’s homes. “There’s big demand, but I don’t charge much,” she says. “I really just want to share art with people.”
This story was first published in the November 2013 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.