Deep inside the quiet and narrow Min Street, several abstract photographs from Paris hang on the wall in a small gallery showing the street art of modern-day France.
The exhibition “Art42, Hors Les Murs // Extramural: Yangon” presented graffiti artwork of French street artists and was held in Yangon from December 10 to 15. Art 42 was opened in Paris in October 2016. It is France’s first museum devoted to street art. It was the first time that the collection of the museum came to Asia.
The theme of the exhibition was “Hors Les Murs” which means “outside the walls”. Alisa Phommahaxay, one of the curator associates for Art42, brought the artworks from France to exhibit around the world. Hearing that graffiti is blooming in Myanmar, Phommahaxay decided Yangon should be one of the first stops of her exhibition in Asia. “My wish here is of course to show some French artwork from Art42 collection. But what I want to do is to show in France or Europe Asian artwork from Bangkok, Yangon or Vientiane,” Phommahaxay said.
Kyaw Moe Khine is one of the street artists in Yangon whom Phommahaxay met at the exhibition. Phommahaxay was surprised by these young Myanmar artists. “Myanmar had been closed for many years,” she said. “But the artists here can paint as modern as the European artists do.”
According to Kyaw Moe Khine, most Myanmar street artists were self-taught and learned from the internet. The internet in Myanmar has been openly available since 2000 and the military government limited and controlled access until 2011.
“We just survived the slow internet days. But YouTube was locked and that slowed down the process of learning,” Kyaw Moe Khine said.
He fell in love with painting on big walls on the streets of Yangon when he was 14 years old. “I like it when my painting is bigger than me,” he said. “When you have a wall and spray cans, you can do anything.” Kyaw Moe Khine and his street artist friends founded a graffiti group called ROAR. They paint diverse subjects ranging from censorship to power cuts.These young artists find their voice by taking to the walls of Yangon’s streets.
Kyaw Moe Khine said there are 20-25 street artists in Yangon and he is the youngest in the group at 19 years old. Most of the artists are in their 20s and the oldest one is around 35 years old. Kyaw Moe Khine is studying Fine Arts at Lasalle College of the Arts in Singapore and most of the artists have jobs in areas such as layout and commissioning paintings.
The new generation of Yangon street artists has drawn a lot of inspiration from western street art. Kyaw Moe Khine has been influenced and inspired by a Los Angeles-based graffiti crew called Mad Society Kings. Now the country is opening up, more foreign artists are coming to Myanmar.
“Yangon is hungry for art. It’s refreshing,” Phommahaxay said. Last December the Institut Français de Birmanie organised a street art festival in Yangon and many European street artists came to collaborate with local artists. French graffiti artist Remi Assezat did a workshop with Myanmar young people to teach them the street art. Meeting counterparts from Europe, Kyaw Moe Khine said: “My inspirations are the same as theirs. We just take different things from one art.”
Though people share the same codes and values in this urban art world, the street art in Myanmar is still in the early stage in comparison with that in Europe.Graffiti is not recognized and regarded as “low art” by officials in reform-era Myanmar. In 2012, the Yangon City Development Committee imposed a ban on spray-painting walls in public places announcing “those ugly drawings and lettering damage the city’s beauty and annoy residents.” Nevertheless, the ban did not stop Yangon street artists from painting in the city. They spray colours on the walls in the darkness late at night. Though Kyaw Moe Khine got busted for painting on the street when he was 15 years old, he never thought about giving the art up. “This is where my heart lies, painting, all the time,” he said.
Due to the art’s illegality, the artists have to face a short lifespan of their works. Thu Myat, 30, a well-known pioneer street artist in Yangon, said: “I don't care that graffiti art lasts long or not.There is no challenge for me.”
Phommahaxay said: “Any art on the street can’t last but that’s what makes the art interesting”. She has taken back to Art42 some photographs of Yangon graffiti– art that could be destroyed at any time. “I have never seen street artwork from Asia in France. Mainstream Europeans don’t know there is street art in Asia,” Phommahaxay said. Art42 is trying to keep this artwork alive and show them to people.
“Some cities in Europe have already accepted it as part of their dynamic and it is now starting for Yangon and its authorities,” said Elodie Sobczak, one of the coordinators of the street art festival last December. To support this moving art to live and evolve with the city, the Institut Français de Birmanie invite 20 local street artists to revive the large concrete walls of the Myaynigone Flyover with their street art creations in the coming weeks. “The idea is to showcase the potential of these artists and their creations, transforming it into an active asset for the cities,” said Charles Bonhomme, the director of the Institut Français de Birmanie. It will be the first time that the street artists are able to paint on legal walls.
“This is the country I’ve been in. This is my school. I think I’m capable to make this place beautiful,” Kyaw Moe Khine said. He is aware that Myanmar people have other things to care about but he still believes that street art can cheer them up. “Art is something that they didn’t know they need. But when they have it, I don’t think they are going to move it,” he said.