Explosive Art from Burma
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Explosive Art from Burma


By KYAW ZWA MOE Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Attraction (Photo: Ko Soe/The Irrawaddy)
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All he brings from military-ruled Burma are guns and other weapons. They are not really deadly, however, but artistically colorful. More interestingly, those in his sights are not enemy troops.

Instead, his enemies range from colonialism, lack of modernization of his own country, overpopulation of the world, problems of insufficient clean water to the spread of deadly diseases such as bird flu.

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The weapons of San Minn are on display at the Suvannabhumi Art Gallery in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. He is the first Burmese artist to show such an unusual series of “weapon” paintings.

Like other surrealists throughout the world, San Minn bases his unique works on philosophy, which require the viewer to stand before them and ponder their meaning. 

His work Turning Point, for example, had some of the visitors to the opening of his exhibition thinking out loud. One offered his interpretation to a small group, including the artist: “I think the message of this painting is about military-feudalism.” The painting portrays a soldier who wears the uniform of an ancient kingdom but who holds a machine gun instead of such traditional weapons as a sword or spear.     

The artist gave his work a more mundane meaning: “The idea is that our country would probably not have been colonized by the British if our troops had been equipped with modern weapons like the one the soldier holds there. Our obsolete weapons were one of the main factors for our failure in battle.

“Lack of modernization was a turning point for our country. That’s my idea.”  

Although the painting refers to the colonial era of Burma’s history, Burma’s censors, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Board, took exception to its appearance in a solo exhibition by San Minn in Rangoon. They banned the picture, saying it was “inappropriate.”

The 58-year-old artist began his career in 1969 after studying under such impressionistic masters as Ba Lon Lay and Lun Gywe. He painted the first of the “weapon” series in 1974, calling it Love and War. “Because love is also a war,” the artist said.

The series encompasses 24 paintings, although space considerations limit the number on show in Chiang Mai to 16.    

Specific international conflicts, such as the war over the Falkland Islands between Britain and Argentina in the early 1980s, had their effect on San Minn’s incorporation of weapons into his art. Yet he also ventures outside the battlefield to comment on other forms of strife.

Hanging next to Turning Point, for example, is a striking work titled Attraction. It depicts a large revolver with lipstick in its muzzle surrounded by reddish women’s lips and heavily made-up eyes—the “lethal weapon of seduction” to trap men, according to San Minn. 

A philosophical theme is tackled in Equal Reaction, a product of San Minn’s belief on one of the teachings of Buddha. This time, the weapon, a revolver, has two muzzles, pointing in diametrically opposed directions—symbolic of karma, the belief that one reaps what one sows. Good deeds yield good results. Bad deeds have the opposite effect.

One of the most disturbing pictures, Explosion, portraying a human embryo encased in a grenade, apparently exploding against a hotly burning background, targets an issue of international concern—overpopulation.

Another arresting canvas shows a revolver with a fountain pen serving as its muzzle—an eloquent version of the saying: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” The artist named it Weapon of Art-1.

Although his paintings fetch up to the equivalent of more than US $4,000, San Minn is no commercial artist in the popular sense. His work is destined more for art museums than living room walls, and he seems to be idealistically committed to art for its own sake.

“I have belief, honesty and loyalty in my art,” he says. “I will never betray it. I just want to draw what I want.”

Without being asked, San Minn points to one work, Lokanat, and says:  “That’s my favorite.” Lokanat is the symbol of peace, a legendary peacemaker who is famed for ending a mythical war between a lion king and a flying elephant.


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Jim McNalis Wrote:
17/02/2009
The paintings of San Minn are compelling and original in their execution and point of view. This show at Suvannabhumi Gallery reminds me of what a great asset the gallery is to the art scene in Chiang Mai. Mar Mar who is the owner/director of the gallery has a brilliant knack for finding and displaying some of the most surprising and unique art to come out of Burma these days. Her choices of the art displayed in her gallery are exciting and refreshing, and can be counted on to surprise and stimulate the viewer.

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