“Myanmar women, they need to live outside lives. But they are inside people; taking care of the baby, cooking, cleaning. They need to be outside, we need to change the Myanmar way,” said Ni Ni Lwin on Tuesday, the closing day of the Myanmar Ladies Art Exhibition.
As she spoke, The Yangon Gallery was packed with attendees. Most of those taking in the works of more than 100 female artists were young people: couples holding hands, groups of university-age students crowded in front of portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi and her son Kim Aris, which were hung next to landscapes of rural villages.
It was a heartening turnout for Ni Ni Lwin, but for her mentor and exhibition organiser Daw Nwe Nwe Yi, it was a source of pride. As a veteran of the Burmese art landscape since the early ’70s, she’s cast a watchful eye over the triumphs, and struggles, of the artistic community.
Two generations of female painters from across the nation were showcased, but the obstacles facing these emerging artists stubbornly persist.
Daw Nwe Nwe Yi said she had known since she was a little girl that she wanted to be an artist, and so took up a teaching career to fund her night-school study of art.
“I knew I wanted to be a painter when I was very little. I was in Bogale [Irrawaddy Division] with my family when I saw a picture hanging on the wall, so I went to touch it and it fell down on top of me. That’s how I got this scar, when I was six years old,” she said, pointing to a faded scar above her lip.
She ended up marrying one her teachers, but says his career flourished much faster than hers due to the demands of child-rearing, homemaking and caring for older family members.
While she recognises it hasn’t been easy for many budding artists in Burma, she says women have lagged behind their male counterparts due to pressing cultural expectations.
“Women are mostly in the kitchen. We need to go out. This is Myanmar, once they are 16 or 17, they go directly into the kitchen to cook for the family. No chance.”
Ni Ni Lwin may belong to the succeeding cohort of female artists, but attributes her accomplishments in part to remaining single. She said many of her peers are forced to choose between devoting themselves to their passion, or their life within the family.
It’s a dilemma few male artists grapple with, and she points to the strong community ties men typically enjoy. Women, she says, don’t have the luxury of developing a supportive network of peers on whom to lean when life’s burdens become heavy.
“The male and female [art] communities are a little different. They [men] are outside people, they can go out and meet. Women are inside people.”
Pondering the future of young female artists throughout Burma, Daw Nwe Nwe Yi is cautiously hopeful.
“They need open eyes, open ears. When we open up, then it can be easier for them.
“I am afraid. Women in Myanmar, they still bow down. How can they learn to draw the moon if they never go out at night?”