BANGKOK—Somber, gloomy, provocative are probably overused words when it comes to talking about art, but these adjectives aptly describe the mood captured in Burmese painter Khin Zaw Latt’s “Going Home” series.
Done badly, the grays, blues and blacks depicting Burmese workers heading home from work in Rangoon could have come across as drab. The light-and-shadow effect, however, helps show the harshness and grinding effort of daily life for Burma’s millions of poor while maintaining the viewer’s focus on the art in and for itself.
“I was very affected by the sight of crowds of local people getting on the ferry to cross the river here in Yangon,” Khin Zaw Latt said. “I could feel the hardship and struggle of their everyday life, but also how they just got on with it.
“The more I watched, the more oppressive it was for me,” he said.
In the series, crowds of people are all portrayed walking away from the artist with their backs turned, making their way back to the countryside after a day’s work trying to make ends meet as vendors or porters .
Implicitly, perhaps, there is a critique of prevailing living and social conditions in what is southeast Asia’s poorest country measured on a real income per-capita basis, though perhaps the artist walks a fine line in a country where the Ministry of Information’s censorship board scrutinizes all art and anything that it perceives as critical of the government can land an artist in jail.
Poet Saw Wai was jailed for two years for publishing a love poem which allegedly carried within it a hidden message describing Snr-Gen Than Shwe as “power crazy.”
Comedian Zarganar is serving a 35-year term for criticizing the government’s relief effort after the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis, while Zayar Thaw, a popular hip-hop musician was sentenced to six years for his apparent role in an underground student movement.
In each of Khin Zaw Latt’s images, one or two people or objects are rendered in colour, standing out amid the bleakness
and toil captured by the social realist style, which perhaps best describes the style of the painting he uses.
The images seem like a Burmese parody of the old Communist socialist realism propaganda paintings that typically featured sturdy, loyal and hard-working proletariats willingly breaking their backs with hard work for the revolution and motherland.
The flashes of colour are a reminder, in contrast, that despite the milling crowds, it is necessary to remember that each person moving through the throng is unique: an individual whose personality must never be blurred by or lost amid the multitudes around.
“I wanted to express in my paintings both emotions—the uncomfortable pressure of the crowd, but also the individual beauty that sparkles through the ordinary,” the artist said.
Hard work for a meager salary is the harsh reality for millions of Burmese, for many of whom Buddhism is a central part of their lives.
The second series of paintings by Khin Zaw Latt showcases the variety of images of the Buddha that can be seen across Asia, including the many different Buddha representations inside Burma.
He has been painting images of the Buddha for six years and says that his versions are all based on different Buddhist scriptures.
“Buddhist scripture says that there have been a lot of Buddhas all over the world”, he says.
In each case, the Buddha is given more of a quirky “caught-in-the-moment” look than is the case with standard-issue Buddha statues that can be bought outside temples or in tourist areas.
The Shan Buddha seems to be thinking aloud, a growing smile emerging.
The intention is to make this and each image of the series stand out from other Buddha representations elsewhere in Burma.
As the artist puts it, “ the Buddha face in Shan state and Mandalay is very different, as are the Buddha faces in different historical times, such as the Bagan period or the Inwan period.”
The many facets of Buddha iconography is captured in another way on the “Transparent Buddha,” where the artist uses a stamp to pock-mark the painting with small “standard” Buddha images, setting this concept off against the eye-catching but traditional emerald and gold colours reminiscent of Buddhist temples and statues around Southeast Asia used in the rest of the painting.
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