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Victoria Milko

Nathalie Johnston: Creating a home for contemporary art in Myanmar

Despite being nearly 14,000 kilometres from her hometown in America, Myanm/art gallery director Nathalie Johnston has managed to create a home for herself – and Myanmar’s growing contemporary art scene – in the bustling city of Yangon.

Johnston’s first encounter with Myanmar took place over two decades ago, in 1997, when her family visited a friend working at the U.S. Embassy in Yangon. “I was 13 and remember coming into Yangon and driving through the city. There were no people in the streets, except for police officers on every corner,” says Johnston. “That trip changed my life. I was affected by the struggle of the people, and by how beautiful and tragic it was. After that trip I went home and wrote in my journal that I was going to come back one day.”

Johnston’s adolescent prose turned out to be more resolute than most. She returned to Southeast Asia in 2009, attending Sotheby’s Institute of Art in Singapore to do a thesis on contemporary art in Southeast Asia. “I thought, ‘Yes – this is my chance to get back to Myanmar.’ But we weren’t learning anything about Burmese art, because not a lot of people really knew that much about Burmese art.”

In response, Johnston told her professor that she wanted to do her thesis on Burmese contemporary art.

“When I said that, my professor told me, “There is no contemporary art in Myanmar’,” says Johnston.

Image Courtesy of Myanm/art

Undeterred, Johnston searched online to see what she could learn about contemporary art in Myanmar and came across Beyond Pressure – a performance art festival that was taking place in Yangon at the time. Johnston flew to Myanmar and met with some of the artists involved. After making several visits, which included attending exhibits and having in-depth conversations with the artists about some of the changes taking place in contemporary art scene in wake of the country’s changing politics, she found that she had more than enough material to complete her thesis on contemporary Myanmar performance art and its origins.

After completing her studies at Sotheby’s, Johnston moved to Beijing to pursue a job outside of the art world, but kept in touch with the Burmese artists she had met, visiting Myanmar whenever possible. She eventually started a blog, called “Myanm/art”, where she would post reviews of exhibitions and events in Yangon, such as 3 Performances, performed in a Yangon shopping mall, and The Post-Modern Text Festival with poet Nyein Way.

Consider the setting. A shopping mall. Two artists, a writer and an incentive to share. Place yourself, if you will, in their shoes. The manifestation of audience within the contemporary confines of a culturally void institution like a shopping mall has symbolic meaning.  The mall does not foster a creative energy that a gallery or even the streets of Yangon might. But performing in such a space does support a kind of irony – playing on the lack of intentional audience. The endless struggle to be as free in their art as they are in their minds. Read on; the words of one writer conveying two Burmese artists’ challenges through performance and the realities of action and happening in a city such as Yangon. (An excerpt from Johnston’s introduction to 3 Performances)

During a trip to Myanmar in 2012, she met Ivan Pun, a business-savvy entrepreneur and the son of a wealthy Myanmar real estate tycoon. The following year, Pun told her he was getting ready to open a contemporary art gallery on Yangon’s riverfront. “It was like a dream come true,” says Johnston. “I showed him my CV and it took him a few days to get back to me, but then I got a call where he said, ‘Okay, come to Yangon and come be director of TS1’.”

But the dream was short-lived. After nine months, the port authority abruptly refused to allow the gallery to renew its lease, causing it to shutter in January 2015. “When that happened I thought to myself, ‘There’s no way I’m leaving,’” says Johnston. “I just knew that I had to readjust.”

A performance art event taking place in Myanm/art. Image courtesy of Myanm/art

Following her stint at TS1, Johnston worked for various projects such as the Asia Art Archives and the Yangon Photo Festival, while occasionally curating shows at the Goethe-Institut in Yangon. “Then in early 2016 three different people – unrelated to each other – told me I should open my own space. It’s not something I had planned on, but I thought, ‘Okay, maybe. But it has to be the right space.’ And it’s so hard to find spaces in Yangon.”

With the help of a friend who had come across the space while spending months searching for a property to buy, Johnston was able to find the building that is now home to Myanm/art. It sits on Yangon’s Bogalayzay Street, just one block down from the city’s infamous Secretariat, where the father of Nobel laureate and the country’s current de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Bogyoke Aung San, was assassinated decades ago. Walking up the old wooden stairs to the third-floor gallery, visitors will find graffiti tags and stickers that have begun to decorate the path up to the art space. At the top of the stairs, the building opens up to a large open space, with old colonial doors lining one wall. The other walls are often filled with a rotation of paintings, neon art, photographs and everything in between. Occasionally, a large installation piece will be in the middle of the room, inviting visitors to come closer.

The gallery had its first show in May 2016, featuring a small group of artists Johnston knew, and has since shown over 30 artists, ranging from young up-and-coming street artists, such as colourful and often politically-vocal street artist BART, to esteemed painters such as Aung Myint.

Image: Victoria Milko

“My main focus is young and emerging artists, but I’m also happy to have older, more established artists do shows here if they approve of the space,” Johnston says. “I also end up not doing many group shows, as artists ask to have solo exhibitions – and that’s ok. Doing so teaches [artists] something about their practice, and gives them a chance to see their work as a series of collection in one space – which is something they rarely get to do.”

Indeed, young artists, such as BART, say Myanm/art does just that. “It’s still making progress, but it’s a much-needed space for the avant garde kind [of art] because we can’t really showcase too much in other places,” says BART, who has had several shows at the gallery. “There are only a handful places that accept the young people in the creative circle… and Myanm/art is one of the pillars.”

Opening the gallery has given Johnston permanence to her role in the Yangon art community, while also helping her build trust and credibility with local creatives who have realised her long-term dedication to nurturing Yangon’s burgeoning art scene.

“I’d spent years with my artist friends – who have been so supportive – but at the same time, they were still always trying to place me,” says Johnston. “They’d ask ‘What is it that you’re doing here?’ or ‘When are you going home?’ I had to keep explaining, ‘This is my home!’ But they were never really convinced until I opened the gallery.”

But having a space doesn’t come without a cost – especially in a city with notoriously expensive real estate. Funding for the arts is infamously poor in Myanmar, and Johnston – an American citizen – is often excluded from many of the funding opportunities that do arise from local and international organisations. Other funding opportunities have stipulations for the kind of work that needs to be shown – something that Johnston says she has no interest in participating in.

“Artists won’t do whatever they want if [the funding] requires them to have a certain message or style,” she says. “I don’t require the artists to make work that will sell – they don’t need to have a particular subject matter or address particular issues in order to come here. They just have to be willing to have a conversation with me.”

Profits from art sales made in the gallery, renting the space for private events, and investing money from other projects she’s involved in – all this helps Johnston pay for the space, but she also admits she has strong support from a very specific benefactor. “My husband has a [salaried] job, and that provides a huge sense of security. He believes in me, and he’s my biggest investor,” Johnston says. “But part of us the reason we put our own money in is because we feel like we’re making an investment in the community.”

The gallery also acts as a home base for Johnston’s other projects. Inside one of the back rooms is an art archive, which includes donated works, videos of performance art, and out-of-print books. Translated copies of the previously censored Myanmar Contemporary Art 1 (MCA1), which Johnston helped to get published, are available for sale in the gallery, with an original copy of the previous edition available for guests to flip through.

Translated copies of the previously censored Myanmar Contemporary Art 1 (MCA1), which Johnston helped to get published, are available for sale in the gallery. Image: Victoria Milko

Johnston has also taken on another major project – joining Myanmar’s new Pyinsa Rasa collective. The collective – which comprises local and international artists and institutions such as Wathann Film Institute and photography gallery Myanmar Deitta – aims to support and curate creative events and art education programs, with the goal of contributing to Yangon’s greater cultural development.

“[In Yangon] independent artists or smaller creative organizations aren’t usually trusted. We want to show that organizations – like Pyinsa Rasa – can be trusted,” says Johnston. “And the end goal is to create a cultural institution that addresses the needs of the public.”

The group is currently in the early stages of fundraising, with events programming taking place in the Secretariat from now through July 2018. Events include exhibits showcasing vintage Burmese films – many of which are in desperate need of funding for restoration and preservation as they age – and showcasing local independent musicians, who are often unable to find venues that will let them host shows without charging the musicians a hefty fee.

But home base is still Myanm/art, says Johnston, who recently renewed the gallery’s lease for another year.

“It’s all about combining experiences and creating community space where artists feel free to do whatever is it that they want to do,” says Johnston. “And really, that’s what Myanm/art is all about.”

This is part of an ongoing series on contemporary arts spaces in Southeast Asia and their founders.

About the author(s)

Victoria Milko is a multimedia journalist based in Myanmar. She is currently an editor at Frontier Myanmar, with her work also found in The Washington Post, NPR, and others. Follow Victoria Milko on Twitter or Instagram @thevmilko.

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