Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts
One of the most commonly heard expressions about Myanmar/ Burma is that the country is frozen in time. While this may bring about heated debates on what this means to the people and the everyday life they lead, to tradition, the "good and evil" of modernization–what stands true to this day is the social patterns of interactions, support systems and hierarchies within society that remained unchanged for generations; everybody should know their place within this system, how they are supported by it and in turn support another.
Another important aspect of this strong adherence to age-old perspectives is the inherited cultural way of seeing things–the reading of words and actions are pretty pre-determined and entrenched. This can perhaps be said about other societies and countries in transition.
To find the possibility/opening for activities that are new to the Myanmar environment and to run a space that enables intercultural interaction in contemporary art activities is not something to be ventured into lightly in a country such as Burma, and indeed will meet with lively responses and resistances from a multiplicity of directions.
NICA, which stands for Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts, a resource development program for culture and the arts based in Yangon/ Rangoon, Myanmar, has beginnings that were as uncertain and unpredictable of its future, as it still is today. And it certainly did not start off intending to be new or difficult–it began as a response to the expressed needs of the local arts community and social environment.
Still operating under low visibility with limited funding due to international sanctions against Myanmar, NICA, a small initiative with a short history of a little over two years, has been able to create several possibilities for the development of contemporary art in Myanmar and in building bridges for Myanmar artists with counterparts and organizations outside.
How NICA came about
The idea for NICA’s work came about from years of interaction and research between artist and organizer Jay Koh, who first went to Burma in 1997, and Myanmar artists primarily from the Inya and Gangaw artist groups. The initial research and communication led Jay Koh to believe that there was much he could share with the Burmese artists. However, awareness of cross-cultural difficulties and limited access to resources, led him to adopt a listening approach, with the local artists setting the agenda of what activities and goals they would like to achieve.
Isolation has created a self-contained environment for Burmese artists. Yet the art scene is lively, with most artists making paintings, and 95% of galleries run by artist groups (selling to tourists/foreign collectors is the main possibility of earning a living) are based on membership system–loyalty to the "leader" or "master" artist. Artists painting in the Western "traditional" styles using watercolors and oils (Western academic styles were introduced here by the British) are extremely skillful, and these "master painters" who usually run their own galleries, have a following of "disciples," usually members of the particular gallery. The master painters are the patrons or "head of the family" that hand out benefits and opportunities to the disciples. These are kept strictly within the family. A very small number of such master painters who have managed to get Western commercial gallery representation can command $10,000 and above per painting.
A trickle of news spreads due to travel and contact with the outside and rare magazines that have managed to find their way into the country. Some artists have learnt about conceptual art, process-based work and performance art from this diffusion of information. A very small number of Burmese artists have traveled outside and brought back news of various art forms they witnessed outside. From as early as 1996, artists were beginning to use ideas of installation and performance in their work. Limited news and information allowed for interesting interpretations of the art forms that have been manifested in Burmese installation work, which seems to fuse ideas of minimalist, pop and environment with Buddhist philosophical tradition.
Performance art struck a chord in a small group of artists. It became a common practice after 2000 that on the last day of an exhibition, artists get together to have the usual drink and performance art session as a closing celebration of a successful period of exhibition.
The Burmese artists who were in early contact with Jay Koh expressed that they needed basically three things: (1) to get more exposure for their work outside of Myanmar; (2) to gain access to more knowledge about what is happening in contemporary art practices outside, especially in the Asian region, as they get some updates on Western art from American magazines; (3) to learn more about art practices that are "new" for them (e.g. installation and performances art practices).
The initial two years of Jay Koh’s activities with Burmese artists consisted of exposing them to performance, video, installation and new ideas and art practices, also exposing their works by bringing their art outside for exhibitions. By 2000, discussions were already underway on longer-term plans that would benefit Myanmar arts development, in keeping with the working principles of IFIMA (International Forum for InterMedia Art, an organization which Jay Koh founded in Cologne in 1995) which are focused on developing long-term, sustained and engaged collaborative art projects that are responsive to local social cultural environments.
The idea of an art centre for Myanmar contemporary art started to take root. By this time in 2000, IFIMA, together with the Burmese artists started planning for the project named Collaboration, Networking and Resource-sharing: Myanmar (CNRM), with the long-term goal of setting up of an art centre in Rangoon. The initial team consisted of mainly Inya artists. In order to widen their collaborative circle, as such an art centre should, the participation benefits wider communities of artists. Members of the Gangaw Village, a group that was formed from the Rangoon University art club since the late 80s, were invited to join in the steering/organizing team for CNRM. They picked a fresh name for this newfound spirit of cooperation, Ayeyarwaddy Artists’ Assembly (AAA). IFIMA would take on the role of external coordinator and advisor–coordinating the project from outside Burma and channeling resources and skilled persons their way.
Collaboration, Networking and Resource-sharing: Myanmar took place in Yangon in June 2002, with a two-day symposium and four-day workshop program. Appraised as a landmark event by participants, two of the three main funding organizations, Japan Foundation Asia Centre and Arts Network Asia (the third being the Prince Claus Fund of The Netherlands), each sent representatives to the event. Following the success of the event, a non-profit art centre was established to coordinate art activities with emphasis on workshops and learning opportunities for Burmese artists and to coordinate exchanges between Burmese artists, writers and critics with those from other parts of the world.
Since then, conflict has been the story leading up to and into NICA, symptomatic of the larger situation and climate in Burma–a low trust environment in which rumors can easily destabilize any work or organization. By the time NICA was formed in March 2003, the art centre project had gone through two committees, and a previous incarnation as Ayeyarwaddy Artists’ Assembly (AAA) centre. Ask any artist today who has been involved in AAA and they have many differing stories to tell. As rumors circulating about the project were growing to be very damaging, and most importantly very dangerous for the local persons involved, IFIMA was asked to step in as "face" of the project. Breaking our previous position, we decided that we needed to be based inside Burma in order to sustain the project that everyone worked on so far.
By the time the name and direction of NICA was established, the rumors had become rife in the arts communities–the local and foreign organizers misusing resources, and of the affiliation of IFIMA with interest groups of unclear identity. Compounded by the fear of interacting with foreigners and rumors of NICA being watched, visitors were few, although we did all that we could to make the place legitimate and transparent to the authorities. We threaded slowly, formulating our activities step by step, responding to situations and rumors. Our first programs were local artist-in-residency, training for young adults who were interested in learning arts management and English classes for artists and the young people.
When Burmese artist Nyo Win Maung, braving criticism from his peers agreed to become NICA’s artistic coordinator, he proposed to organize a group installation exhibition that would have become our first exhibition. As days came closer to the event, it became clear that fear was getting the better of some of the artists. Nyo dreaded the idea that our first exhibition would not take off, as it would deepen rumors that were already causing problems for us. So after ruminating on the problem for a while, we decided that one solution would be to turn the exhibition into a workshop series, with each artist taking turn to use the entire NICA premises for their work. Each one would have three weeks to work on and continue to develop and change their installations, and at the same time engage in discussions with young adult participants, interested artists and members of the artistic communities. The first to take the lead was Nyo. When the first event in the series went smoothly, others followed. That is how we managed to pull off our first major program, Installation Workshop Series I, featuring five artists, namely Nyo Win Maung, Than Htay Maung, Saw Wai, Lynn Wunna and Myint Myint Win.
With time and gradual interaction with the wider arts community, and in developing the programs to respond more precisely to the needs of particular interest groups, we began to grow a small community of users.
NICA’s objectives and activities
NICA’s objectives from the beginning have been to identify and support aspects of arts, culture and society in Burma that are in need of assistance for their development. NICA’s main activities are resource development for culture and the arts. This however really depended on the interest and needs of the communities of users who come to NICA. In order to build locally responsive and sustained initiatives, NICA’s programs needed to be generated by and responsive to local interests, needs and initiatives already on the ground.
In the year 2002, the Asia Society listed in one of their publications only two "modern" artists from Myanmar. A handful of contemporary artists had the opportunity to travel. Some works have managed to be circulated outside and began to gain international attention. For example Po Po (who has participated in Fukuoka Asian Art Museum’s event), Aung Myint, Aye Ko, Nyein Chan Su (through Myanmar Gallery of Contemporary Art, which has a Singaporean partner), among others, and Burmese paintings have been shown by a handful of galleries in Thailand, Singapore, Hong Kong, USA and elsewhere.
However, the majority of Burmese artists are still unexposed and are not able to access opportunities outside. More importantly there are a growing number of artists and art enthusiasts who are interested in making art that does not have commercial appeal. And these are who are most exasperated and cut off from any source of sustenance, encouragement, inspiration and possibility for practice.
At the same time, there is a need to learn about arts management, curatorial work, research, arts writing and other supportive practices for the arts. Many young people are only attending a university ten days per year due to distant education arrangements. The courses most heavily organized under distant education are the arts and humanities courses. Most of the undergraduates find employment and study at the same time. There is a great demand and need for educational and training opportunities for youth, as well as for artists, writers and cultural workers who are interested in becoming more knowledgeable and skilled in arts management and organization.
It is clear that reducing the isolation and alienation of Burmese artists– facilitating them in accessing opportunities and discourses outside, especially with their immediate and regional neighbors, supporting their work, and providing training for young adults interested in learning arts and project management skills, should form the main focus areas of work of NICA.
International Networking & Resource-sharing Program: One of NICA’s core programs has been the Open Academy, in which resource persons–artists, writers, cultural organizers, workers, foundations, teachers, counselors etc. are invited into Burma to conduct training, courses, counseling and more on various topics and issues as suited to learning needs to locals, and to introduce discourses, activities, practices and organizations outside. Foreign participants also explore developing future collaborations, and resource sharing with local participants.
The many Open Academy workshops and courses that NICA has organized and hosted since 2003 ranges from Writing Big Books for Children to Website Design, Curatorial Practices, Cultural Management, Creative Research, Video, Photographic Essays, etc. In addition to workshops and courses NICA has international residencies for a period of between two weeks to a month, for artists and writers from Bangladesh, The Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Finland, France, U.K. and Switzerland.
Residency, Research & Development Programs
NICA has supported local artists and writers through residencies, research grants, exhibitions, facilitating their travel to show their work outside, or to participate in residency programs in other countries. We commission writing and translation of seminal work, from English into Burmese and from Burmese into English. We also publish writing and research by Myanmar arts practitioners, writers and researchers, as well as facilitate distribution to worldwide communities. NICA also runs a reference library and produces activities proposed by local practitioners.
Currently NICA is building a website that contains information and writings on Burmese arts and culture, artists, writers, galleries and arts organizations that are working inside Burma. An early version of the website, which is being developed with support from Tampere Polytechnic in Finland and Perumal Studios in Singapore, can be viewed at .
Internship & Training Programs
NICA has conducted training and internship programs for the transference of project management, organizational, IT, language and writing, curatorial, marketing and other such professional skills to interested youth and artists through our Young Adults Training Program.
From time to time, NICA has also organized small scale exhibitions, for example on Contemporary Art from Bangladesh curated by Lipi Tayeba; works by Pe Nyunt Way and Nyo Win Maung, who took part in an exchange program (Mekong Networking & Xchange) to Thailand and Cambodia co-organized by NICA and Reyum Institute for Art and Culture that is based in Cambodia; and Soe Naing who was NICA’s first artist-in-residence. A 2-day international performance festival, Performance Site: Myanmar — Borders Within and Without took place in January 2005, with the participation of 18 Burmese artists and 20 artists from countries such as Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Germany, USA, U.K., Switzerland and others.
NICA’s form continually responds to the Burmese social-cultural environment. The model is fluid and constantly adapts to internal changes. NICA’s work has and will continue to become more and more diversified. And NICA will continue to be sensitive of many local factors and considerations, such as local structures, hierarchies and conditions; local patterns of interaction and behavior, local belief systems, ways of communication, cultural interpretations and readings of actions and signs.
NICA will continue to serve as a testing-ground, as an example of what could be possible or not possible in Burma–as it has to constantly negotiate the labyrinth of the charged conditions set up by prevalent power structure and to perform productively under the scrutiny of the fractionized locals. We believe that it has served as an educative model for self-organization by locals, even for those who do not come to our space.