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Myanmar painter uses canvas to open gateway into the spirit world

Working in a trance-like state, artist Soe Naing brings nat culture to life in his vivid paintings


Nat statues preside over a shrine near Mount Popa, Myanmar. Douglas long

EVERY year in the middle of monsoon season, the town of Taungbyone in central Myanmar hosts a festival that draws thousands of spirit worshippers from across the country. The six-day event is unusually raucous for Myanmar, often characterised by hard drinking, gambling and other boisterous behaviour.

The main attraction of the festival are the spirit mediums, invariably gay men dressed as women who channel supernatural beings while dancing and spinning to the clanging rhythm of traditional Burmese percussion music. Swigging rum straight from the bottle, the possessed cross-dressers provide a flesh-and-blood vessel through which the spirits can dispense wisdom and prophecies to their eager followers.

The culture of venerating these spirits, known as nats, has its roots in animist belief, but in Myanmar it has, for many people, become an integral part of Buddhism. Statues of the most powerful Burmese nats, known as the 37 Lords, can be seen at Buddhist pagodas, as can figures representing numerous lesser regional and ethnic nats. The spirits are worshipped at home, at public shrines and at festivals known as nat pwe, of which the one at Taungbyone is the biggest.

The vivid colours and frantic dynamism of the nat subculture would seem to make it a natural choice for visual artists looking for interesting subject matter, and yet the overwhelming majority of painters in Myanmar take the more traditional, static images of Buddhism as their primary source of inspiration.

One artist who has broken from the pack in this regard is Soe Naing, a 49-year-old painter whose images of nats and vahanas (animals closely associated with Hindu deities) are on display at the French Cultural Centre (CCF) in Phnom Penh until February 28.

Soe Naing’s trajectory as an artist started in the early 1980s with formal training under painters U Lun Gywe and U Thein Han at the University of Yangon, from which the painter graduated in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in zoology.

Uninspired by the rigid demands of formal training in traditional art forms, Soe Naing did not start painting seriously until the early 1990s, when he met contemporary artist Aung Myint and was introduced to the works of abstract expressionists like Willem De Kooning and Jackson Pollock.

Soe Naing’s work quickly took on many of the characteristics mid-20th century abstract American painting, but he wasn’t willing to completely abandon traditional art. In 1996 he caught his first glimpse of the religious murals at the ancient Burmese temple complex of Bagan and started integrating some of the mythical images into his own paintings.

Erin Gleeson, the curator of the CCF exhibition, said Soe Naing’s style was a “marriage of his experience” of abstract expressionism, his visit to Bagan and his zoology studies. “In one way it’s biographical, and in another way it’s derivative of abstract expressionism in the West.”

However, she added that since 2004 the artist has made strides towards carving out his own distinctive style. She attributes this jump in development to Soe Naing’s residency with Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts (NICA) in 2003, through which “he was able to have some money and take some time to explore something new”.

Chu Chu Yuan, NICA’s director for programmes and training, agreed that from the early 2000s the artist “gradually developed his own language coming from influence of American expressionism”.

According to Soe Naing, this new language grew out of his efforts during his residency to rid his mind of any sense of expectation or any need to adhere to a specific artistic tradition.

“When I was an artist-in-residence for NICA, the obligation to paint for [the program] was pressure for me,” he said in an email interview. “All the paintings were ruined by the clouding of my mind by the greed for being able to say ‘I painted this’ and show off my paintings, and the grief of the worry about not being able to produce.”

He explained that he wasn’t able to create satisfactory images until he left the studio where he usually painted and went out to his front porch with little pieces of cardboard and red and black paint.

“I scratched this way and that, like a chicken, and that was the real painting – A Little Human and Other Creatures,” Soe Naing said, referring to the series of images featured in a book published by NICA following his residency.

Chu Chu Yuan observed in an essay written for the NICA book that Soe Naing’s resulting images “became infused with strange permutations of life forms”.

The images had an eerie quality described by Myanmar art critic Zaw Zaw Aung as “grotesque” and “ominous”. “They could be said to evoke a sense of unbalance, unpleasantness or just disappointment,” he wrote. “Some images appear pessimistic and even inauspicious, giving a sense of impending ill.”

Although Soe Naing has developed stylistically since his NICA residency, thematically the oil-on-canvas paintings now on display at CCF, which were created in 2007 and 2008, do not represent a huge departure from what the artist has been making for the past decade. Indeed, as early as 1997 artist Naing Zaw observed that Soe Naing “has been influenced by the bright colours and images of Myanmar nat festivals”.

At the same time, the images are not nearly as unappealing as Zaw Zaw Aung’s descriptions seem to indicate.

The paintings are rendered in thick dollops and sweeping swathes of paint that are placed on the canvas with a palette knife rather than a brush. Seeing the grain of the strokes, it is easy to visualise the artist’s vigorous gestures as he worked. The colours are often fresh and cheerful, standing in opposition to any sense of pessimism.

One visitor from Myanmar who viewed the exhibition last week said the colours were vivid enough to evoke more than just the visual experience of the nat pwe.

“When I see these paintings I hear the music of the nat pwe. I think [Soe Naing] expresses sounds through bright colours,” said Aye Sapay Pyu, on a month-long visit to Phnom Penh.

The nat pwe act as a gateway to the spirit world, and the figures are clearly from a place that is not our own, a realm populated by hermaphrodites, humanoid figures bearing sword-like weapons, and in one instance a horse and rider galloping across a black void.

The source of the otherworldly quality of these paintings is best explained by Soe Naing himself. Although he doesn’t claim to be channelling nats while he paints, he admits that the creative process is akin to being possessed by a spirit not beholden to the dictates of reason.

“Nats are in a state of trance;I am too, and so are my little humans. Nats are dynamic. I am in motion, too. so are my little humans,” he said.

Soe Naing added that although he has never been to the big festival at Taungbyone, his mother worshipped nats at home and he has seen a number of smaller nat pwe. “Those ceremonies encourage me,” he said.

He added that he has not yet tried to paint the most powerful spirits – the 37 Lords – because he was “not chosen yet”. With this enigmatic statement, it’s unclear whether he has not yet decided to paint them, or they have not yet decided to allow themselves to be painted.

But he insisted: “I will try to paint the 37 Lords, while I am in a trance, of course, and my human mind disappears.”

It seems that for Soe Naing, this “disappearance” of the human mind is necessary for the creative process to unfold, a means of overcoming what he refers to as the “rubbish” of the mind to “strip away pretence”.

“It is only when you are eager to paint, and are free of grief and greed, healthy, and with the mind at peace, that you are in the frame of mind to accept uncertainty,” he said.

The dangerous reputation of nats might also play a part in this freeing of the mind.

Although nats have many followers in Myanmar, there is a general unease about spirit worship: Nats are a notoriously fickle bunch who can lend help when they want to, but who are also capable of bringing great misfortune upon those who don’t show the proper respect.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many artists avoid including nat images in their work. But where others sense danger, Soe Naing sees liberation.

“Looking at Soe Naing’s paintings, the term ‘angst’ comes to my mind,” critic Zaw Zaw Aung said. “[These feelings] might be irresistible or even destructive to us. However, for artists, it is the time to create art, and a time to give something to the world.”

“Nats are supposed to be something bad,” Soe Naing acknowledged, but added: “When people are possessed by nats, they forget the worries of their lives. They can become the brothers of the Lord Nats.”

Soe Naing’s nats and vahanas paintings are on display at the French Cultural Centre’s Exhibition Hall (218 Street 184) until February 28.

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