Visit to Burma
I arrive in Burma under ominous skies. Recalling my predilection for monsoon adventures, black rain clouds gather two weeks early in order to witness my arrival. In the distance, the soaring Shwedagon Pagoda defies the gathering storm and illuminates the gloom with golden rays of optimism. Yangon Picture gallery here.
I’m visiting Yangon as a representative of Media Academic Partners (MAP) at Goldsmiths in response to Aung San Suu Kyi’s invitation for UK Universities to participate in the regeneration of Burmese education and training. In return, we plan to invite Rector U Kyaw Oo (below on my right) and Pro-Rector U Htun Ohn (below on my left) of the National University of Arts and Culture to Goldsmiths via the British Council in Yangon.
My purpose on this initial visit is to assess Media and Arts training needs that Goldsmiths may be able to assist in providing. The subject areas I’m exploring are Art, Media and Culture generally - including Photography, Film, Television, Fine Art, Performing Arts, Journalism and also school-level Education.
My week starts with a visit to artist Htein Lin. I previously met Htein at the Tate Modern in London where he was making plaster casts of the arms of released Burmese political prisoners for his major artwork A Show of Hands. So far, Htein has made 300 plaster casts from a planned total of 1,000. On completion, his powerful art installation will tour international galleries.
Htein is kindly helping to facilitate my meetings with artists, filmmakers, educators and media professionals in Yangon. While driving to our first appointment he tells me the story of Daw Nita Yin Yin May. Nita May is one of the people that Htein is highlighting in his art. What follows is the story behind Nita's participation in A Show of Hands . . .
In her work as a Press Officer at the British Embassy in Yangon, Nita was involved in distributing freely available information to world media organisations about widespread public protests against military rule in 1988. For her ‘crime’, Nita was sentenced to three years in the notorious Insein Prison. Shortly after her incarceration she discovered that she was pregnant and was forced to give birth to her child in the prison, under conditions of virtually non-existent medical care.
After her son was born, Nita’s father was asked to collect the baby and take him home. Nita had no choice but to serve the rest of her sentence with no contact with her child until her release. Nita and her son now live in London where she works for BBC Burmese Radio. In this photo she is campaigning for the release of her friend Sandar Min who was sentenced to 65 years in prison for her role in peaceful protests.
Some of my meetings . . .
With Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi, Festival Director and Mon Mon Myat, Executive Director of the Human Rights Dignity Film Festival that takes place in Yangon every June. Mon Mon and Min Htin are currently making an in-depth film about the life of Aung San Suu Kyi that will be completed at the end of 2015 - after the democratic election has taken place. Through the festival, they run an intensive documentary filmmaking programme every June, July and August.
Thaiddi and Thu Thu Shein are Filmmakers and Directors of the Wathann (Monsoon) Film Festival that takes place every September. Thaiddhi, Thu Thu and their colleagues run a variety of training programmes, distribute short films and translate much needed film books into Myanmar, largely on a voluntary basis.
Thaiddhi and Thu Thu have strong links with the Yangon Film School and both have completed a scholarship year at Famu International Film School in Prague. In addition, they distribute their filmmaking books free of charge and donate significant quantities to the University of Culture and the Arts of which Thu Thu is a graduate.
I am very warmly welcomed by the Rector, Pre Rector and Senior Academics at the National University of Arts and Culture and given an insight into the history and mission of the university which was formed in 1993.
I enjoy a traditional music show and a Myanmar marionette performance that is staged to mark my visit. I then tour the cinema facilities and film studio and enjoy a screening of a student film production. I am pleased to be invited to teach Cinematography for undergraduate Cinema and Drama students on my next visit.
I was of course considered an ideal subject by students in the life drawing class.
The university has 592 students and offers courses in Fine Art Painting, Sculpture, Music, Dramatic Arts, Computer Arts and Cinema. Memorandums of Understanding have been signed with universities in Korea, Thailand and China, but not with any Western universities thus far.
From left to right: Zaw Thet Htwe, Leader of the Myanmar Journalists Union; Thein Lin, Artist; Zarganar, Comedian; Nan Win, Artistic Director of Myanmar Dance and Musical Theatre; Gerry McCulloch, Goldsmiths Media Academic Partners; Grace Swe Zin Htaik, Secretary of Myanmar Motion Picture Organisation; Su Mon Hywe, Head of Training at Myanmar Media Development Centre and Su’s assistant.
Meeting with Aye Ko, Executive Director and Haymann Oo, Curator of New Zero Art Space. New Zero is a vibrant radical Arts Centre in downtown Yangon that is run by energetic and inspirational volunteers. Other artists present include Yadanar Win, Thyitar and Ko Latt. All are full-time voluntary coordinators of New Zero Art Space.
New Zero is a Non-profit Independent Art Space containing studios that double as a gallery and an impressive library that despite being assembled on a shoestring is more extensive than the library at the Arts University. New Zero host an impressive range of free Art Courses of up to a year in duration.
Haymann is showing me the diverse range of activities coordinated by New Zero Art Space on virtually no budget. For example, they facilitate a broad range of Arts Exchanges with member countries of the ASEAN Contemporary Art Exchange Program. New Zero are keen to establish links with contemporary Artists, Teachers and PhD students on a worldwide basis and can offer free accommodation on-site for visiting contributors.
With Tun Tun Aye, director of the documentary Human Drama. Human Drama is a British Council Burma project co-organised with local charity FXB. The project contracts Pan Intercultural Arts to provide training and guidance to actors for productions in which educational information is communicated in the form of theatre to illiterate rural communities who have no access to radio, television or internet. Human Drama topics include HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, gender equality, family, social and health issues. Tun Tun kindly helped me to understand the considerable complexities of the education and training landscape of Burma.
With the Myanmar Photographic Society, headed by President Pe Myint Oo. The Mayanmar Photography Society was founded in 1950. They run an annual training course that lasts for two and a half months part-time, and are currently open for their 43rd intake. The MPS run a variety of training initiatives and hold their annual exhibition in the Strand Hotel Ballroom every March. They welcome visiting photographers and speakers and have invited me to teach Portrait Lighting on my next visit.
With Kyi Kyi Pyone, Programme Manager; Myat Lay Tint, Programme Coordinator and Susana Galvan, Director of Education at the British Council, Yangon.
Kyi Kyi and Susana offered me a wealth of helpful advice and assistance during my visit.
Finally, here is my portrait by one of the life drawing students at the university.
Keywords: A Show of Hands, Aung San Suu Kyi, British Council, Burma, Goldsmiths, House of Media and Entertainment, Htein Lin, Human Rights Dignity Film Festival, Le Famu, Media Academic Partners, Myanmar, Myanmar Photographic Society, National University of Arts and Culture, New Zero Arts Space, Nita May, Nita Yin Yin May, Richard Shannon, Sandar Min, Shwedagon Pagoda, The Lady of Burma, Wathann Film Festival, Yangon, Yangon Film School, Zarganar
Fascinating and inspirational Gerry xx
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