Series: Myanmar Rising

Myanmar's contemporary art scene is emerging from tight censorship

Painting by artist M. San Myint
Painting by artist M. San Myint DR/Pansodan Gallery Facebook page

After more than 5 decades of censorship, Myanmar's artists now have much more freedom and the contemporary art scene is thriving. However some artists are still struggling to avoid government scrutiny. 


Walking up a dark staircase in a dusty building on the edge of Yangon's downtown area, one emerges into small gallery filled with paintings.

The works by contemporary Burmese artists cover everything from Yangon's bustling urban chaos to peaceful rural panoramas of rice paddies and bullock carts.

There are also many edgy, abstract paintings that wouldn’t be out of place on gallery walls in Paris or New York.

Forty-two year old Aung Soe Min opened Pansodan gallery in 2008, with the aim of supporting contemporary artists. The gallery houses a book collection as well as art and visual memorabilia illustrating Myanmar's history.

What's perhaps most striking about the gallery today is the number of large colourful paintings of the Nobel Prize-winning democracy activist - now politician - Aun San Suu Kyi.

The images are some proof that censorship is at last on the way out.

"For about the last 50 years we were under the very strong .... censorship. Whenever we [did] exhibition at the time, there's the censorship board. These people [would come] saying this one you can show, this one you cannot. Some of the artists were on blacklists – they cannot share their work. We are experiencing this for a long time." says Aung Soe Min.

"Since about 2 years ago it's a little bit more relaxed. It's a little bit different, but we still have to be careful in some way".

A few blocks north is New Zero Gallery, another gallery supporting contemporary art and performance.

Owner Aye Ko says that the censors still try to keep an eye on their work.

To avoid their scrutiny, New Zero only performs in the grounds of foreign embassies, where censors have no jurisdiction.

"Performance artists we never apply censorship", says Aye Ko, "performance is a process. We never want to explain our process. Sometimes they change their idea, they change the process. This is a difficult area. I don't like to explain the process. We don't want to apply the censorship – only to photos and media."

He says the censors still pay him a visit for the exhibitions, but the climate has become more relaxed.

Before the censorship board was many people, maybe nearly 50 people. More than 10 people would come to check. They don't like artworks we cannot show. But now the situation is a little bit more free. They come, they talk and they drink the coffee – but they are not serious."

Myanmar's democratic reforms mean greater freedom of expression for the country's artists, and as gallery owner Aung Soe Min says, the art scene has a rare opportunity to flourish.

"I want the people to have their vision, feeling, ideas. We need more art, community, museum, gathering space. More healthy society means more art, more community. Like that!"

Daily broadcasts and reports about Myanmar on RFI until Friday 24 May.


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