Color me Burma

Katie Lau

Weekend: June 25-26, 2005

  Pan Gyi Soe Moe


Burma is a haven for a handful of notable artists.

One of them is painter, photographer and film-maker Pan Gyi Soe Moe (the prefix "Pan Gyi'' means artist), who was in Hong Kong to launch his first solo exhibition here. A dark-skinned, diminutive man, he drips with gold and looks younger than his 61 years.

The exhibition, Colors of Myanmar: Gold, Yellow, Red, Pink and Other, is a collection of about 30 paintings and represents the past decade of his work. Some are from his private collection.

His paintings embody the spirit of Burma, capturing the essence of everyday life in images of monks, nuns, ethnic peoples and his former film star wife, Tin Tin Nyo. His subjects are set harmoniously in a variety of environments - the parched soils of deserts, regally still temples and vast, idyllic landscapes.

Evidently, Burma is a constant inspiration for him. "I love my country and I have always lived there,'' he explains in his rusty English. "I have been all over Burma and I find outstanding subjects everywhere. I love that it has so many different climates, landscapes and figures.''

His colors radiate warmth and are symbolic of his subjects. Gold, for example, symbolizes the Buddha, red the robes of Buddhist monks, pink the robes of Buddhist nuns.

He also has a way of applying colors which he claims as an "original technique'' but is likely to go unnoticed by the untrained eye. He explains, pointing to the strokes of brushwork that make up the ground on which umbrella-carrying nuns stand: "Normally, artists mix the colors together but I paint them in separate layers. So you can see different shreds of colors - green, blue, yellow - if you look close enough. It's very important that every artist should have their own color. Mine is one of a kind. That's called workmanship''

But heart and soul remain the most important ingredient of his paintings, he adds. "Most artists paint with their eyes, brains and hands. But real artists find something inside their mind. When they see something, they keep it in memory and decide with their heart whether they like it or not.''

Born and raised in Pyaw Bwe, a small town in central Myanmar, he first landed a job as a designer then took up photography before studying at the prestigious State School of Fine Arts in the capital, Yangon.

Soe Moe says he is one of a few Burmese artists recognized outside his homeland. His works have made it into collections in Australia, Canada, Switzerland and France.

Inside the country, Soe Moe says there is more artistic freedom than is perhaps expected by outsiders. The Burmese government does not censor the arts, he says. It is a view not shared by critics of the country and its regime who say that many artists choose to play safe, focusing on traditional subjects.

"My country hasn't closed down art,'' Soe Moe says. "Artists must not be tied down by anything else, they must stay true to their vision, not the government's vision. Politics is politics, art is art. A political situation cannot interfere with artists' freedom. Artists always want to be free.''

At home, Soe Moe is well known not just as a painter but as a film-maker. He has made more than 50 movies and 200 videos and his last film, AIDS, Myself, Other Men & Women , collected a record seven awards at Burma's Academy Awards in 2003. But he insists that will be his final movie and he will dedicate himself to his painting because his voice can be heard in more places.

"The film market is small in Burma. Films made there enter the local market only. They cannot go abroad. But art can,'' he says. His works have been exhibited internationally - in London, Singapore, Bali, South Korea and Malaysia.

"Film is very difficult and technically weak,'' he says. "It requires a team effort. But one person can finish a painting. I like this exclusivity.''

Colors of Myanmar: Gold, Yellow, Red, Pink and Other. Jul 17. Office Lobby, Lee Gardens, 33 Hysan Avenue, Causeway Bay. Inquiries: 8100 5204

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