Old banknotes become more valuable than ever in the dramatic portraits of Zwe Yan Naing
ZWE YAN NAING introduced a new art genre - "currency collage" - to Myanmar in his first solo exhibition in 2011 at the Pansodan Gallery. He followed that up in his second show, the just-ended "To Value Something", again creating striking portraits with disused banknotes.
Zwe Yan Naing, 30, has been creating art since he was a child and was already quite talented by the time he was attending the Yangon School of Fine Arts. Today he's considered a pioneer of new or little known art forms and ideas.
"I don't want the old banknotes or the iconic people in Myanmar history to be forgotten and buried in the past," he says. "I'm well aware of the significant historic figures and I'm trying to pass on their legacy to the next generation. That's the main concept behind this exhibition."
His currency collages are images of yesteryear's heroes built with banknotes. They combine art and architecture, he says, and entail considerable dexterity as well as commitment.
Zwe Yan Naing begins by cutting up and arranging the banknotes on a prepared template, then glues everything together in a dramatic display of colour-coded uniformity. The notes' dominant colours - green, cyan, pink and white - limit the tone range of his "canvas". Black dye is finally used to mark the boundary along which the central figure is cropped.
He chiefly uses 25, 45 and 75-kyat bills, which ceased to be legal tender in 1987. It's not easy finding them in bulk nowadays. "It's taken me almost three years to stage this second exhibition," Zwe Yan Naing says. "Hunting for the vintage banknotes took most of that time. I scoured old markets and people's private collections and so on.
"I spent a fortune turning these valueless notes into invaluable art pieces, though, so the time has been well spent."
His works sell for anywhere from US$600 to $1,800 (Bt19,000 to Bt58,000).
Most of his collages are portraits of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition National League for Democracy. Zwe Yan Naing explained on the exhibition's invitation cards why she predominates.
"I need a main character for my artistic journey that will end only when I die, someone like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is strong and intelligent and devotes her life to the greater good of the country."
As well as the series "The Myanmar Lady", he's done portraits of her revered father, General Aung San, former UN general secretary U Thant and Thakhin Ko Taw Hmine, the literary powerhouse regarded as the father of Burma's nationalist and peace movements.
Between 2011 and 2013 Zwe Yan Naing had shows in Britain, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Mumbai in India, all well received by critics and the public.
It has not always been such smooth sailing. While Myanmar was still under military rule, the portraits of "the Lady" ruffled feathers and the censors blocked three planned exhibitions in 2009 and 2010. Only in the following year, with liberalism permeating the political air, did he obtain permission to stage his first exhibition.
"I'm now working on my next show, though I don't have an exact date," says Zwe Yan Nain. "I'm very worried about what kind of misfortune might befall me and my art. That's why I have to double my efforts while luck is still on my side."
He's developing another technique, called "stamp collage", using postal logos from the colonial era. "I've got the very first stamp issued with Bogyoke Aung San on it, and other stamps predating that one, plus some foreign stamps that depict Daw Suu Kyi. My next show should be even more remarkable."
Zwe Yan Naing is clearly not interested in "art for art's sake", only in "art for history's sake".
Courtesy Nay Thiha, Myanmar Eleven, October 6, 2014