A new model in supporting and representing artists
“I appreciate art, but I do not appreciate artists,” I said bluntly to the impassive face of Zwe. He looked back at me blandly as if I was talking to a wall. I double-majored in Journalism and Art in college, and know well how artists are, or pretend to be. For me and most of us, we have the left brain to supplement the right. The better the artist, the more right-brain leaning he or she is, and the harder to manage her or him, if even at all possible. I elaborated on decades of knowing artists with right brain in surplus, and left brain in deficit. In the early 1980s, through the University of Southern California where I worked, I even brought two Chinese artists to the US, resulting in their success and ultimate immigration into the country. Zwe and a woman artist Phyu have been taking up my former residence on the hill here in Zhongdian. The wooden building is a three-story villa looking down on pine forest and fish ponds, the scene descending beyond to an ensemble of buildings, pavilions and kiosks, including a writer/composer residence, a multi-function main premises and a museum. Altogether eleven buildings make up the CERS Zhongdian Center on the outskirt of what today is known as Shangri-la. I have moved down to a small one-room abode which still provides enough sanctuary, but spares me from the ups and downs on the hill several times a day just for meals or meeting visitors.
Speaking to Zwe, I hesitated and held back on the specifics of why I was a bit upset. I am not a drinker, but in the kitchen of the villa, I kept a fine selection of liquor; whisky, brandy, wine and Chinese fuel-grade white lightning, intended for visiting friends. They’ve been on the kitchen counter for almost two decades. When I checked, they were all empty, the contents gone. Zwe is known to be a good drinker, or a good drunk. But Zwe is also one hell of an artist that I would like to try to represent, and we are hosting him as our first-ever CERS artist in residence. Sandra, our Myanmar Country Manager, first approached him in Yangon, after I bought one of his paintings at Inle Lake. Zwe asked whether he could bring his sister who, he said, is also an artist. I said no problem, bring her along. Sister she wasn’t. Phyu turned out to be a skillful painter in her own right, a friend of Zwe, who is forever catering to him. Zwe was made an orphan when both of his parents passed away after he ran away to art school in Yangon. His home was in Rakhine State, now made notorious for the expulsion, or some say voluntary exodus, of the Rohingya people, and continued fighting between the army and local ethnic militias.
Zwe’s family was poor and could not support him through art school. He was known to share leftover lunch from fellow classmates, and went hungry during the weekends when everyone else went home. It thus may have provided fodder for his developing into someone who is used to pilfering, a skillful scavenger. His chain-smoking habit also led to health problems, which has curtailed somewhat his active painting.
Zwe is known for using stamps or old withdrawn paper money to create his paintings. His earlier works are all inspired by social ills and injustice in his country, thus resulting in the somewhat progressive to radical themes of his paintings. However, it is not easy to find a ready buyer for such works of art. Luckily for CERS, the difficulties of this first attempt to host artists in residence was not too hard to surmount, despite their eating and sleeping at totally undefined odd hours. Later on, we were to host the two artists on our exploration boat in Myanmar, as well as at our premises at Inle Lake. Phyu, as fortune would have it, turned out to be quite a talented artist as well. Her paintings of children are a joy to see, and her watermarked paintings occasionally have surprises hidden to be discovered gradually.
What came as another nice surprise was Phyu’s family. Her father and his three daughters are all artists. I visited her at her most humble home on a back street in Monywa, a city some two hours west of Mandalay. Seeing her tiny bedroom where she painted by squatting on her bed with a canvas propped next to it was not a surprise. Nor was meeting her sister Swe Zin Latt, who is now teaching sculpture at Mandalay University. All along, I assumed the three siblings must have gotten into art after being influenced by their father. Not so.
U Soe Tint the father had always wanted to become an artist. But such a vocation could hardly provide for the upbringing of three children. So, U Soe Tint maintained a regular job until the three girls were grown and had established themselves as working artists. Only then did their father, in turn, become an artist, the last in the family, now making sculptures using natural gemstones.
However, not all artists are as dedicated as Phyu’s family. I have collected three pieces of Kyaw Zay Yar’s paintings, admiring the surrealistic style of his landscapes, especially the way he exaggerated figures of Buddhist monks, which he himself once was. He also occasionally applies gold leaf into his art, reminiscent of early Buddhist mural art. By the time I took an interest to inviting him as our resident artist, he had not painted for four years, with his family keeping him indoors. He had succumbed to the intensity of drugs, being surreally hooked on something that probably resulted in his somewhat psychedelic works of art. I decided to buy his last three remaining pieces for our collection. As for CERS, our new experimental model was inspired by the spirit of exploration, providing support to artists in countries where CERS has projects and operations. A small and select list of emerging individual artists will be invited to stay and work as resident artists at CERS premises in China, Myanmar, the Philippines and Hong Kong. These artists can produce their art in diverse media with results being exposed, and offered for sale, to high-end CERS supporters. CERS will repatriate the regular agent’s proceeds to the artist’s home country to support nonprofit conservation work. Pieces sold to CERS friends will generally be made available to the artists for future exhibition as well.
Given that CERS has multiple facilities in serene locations, we have begun using these premises, when not fully utilized, to accommodate writers and composers. In 2019 we started a pilot program of invited resident artists, two at a time, beginning with the two visiting artists from Myanmar. This program will in time include artists from Bhutan, the Philippines, Lao PDR and other neighboring countries where CERS expects to have a long-term presence. Ultimately this format would also allow artists from different emerging countries of Asia to interact with each other. Our focus will be on emerging artists little-known except in their native land, yet with artistic skills and interpretation that can be appreciated by a larger audience, be they collectors or exhibition visitors.
We do not expect to represent such artists for a long period of time, but to be the catalyst to make their work known to a wider public. For our next round, I’ve been checking on artists from Bhutan. Further down the road, I also hope to include more primitive types of art, created by shaman or other members of the three-hundred strong Batak tribe whom we are now working with in the jungles of Palawan in the southern Philippines.
The Batak are also heavy drinkers, but it would not be my wine they consume. Their alcoholic beverage is not from bottle but from nature, fermented liquor produced directly from, and on the top of, the coconut palm. Of those we have plenty, as our Palawan site hosts over one thousand coconut palms!