Intersections of the Literary & Artistic Worlds in Myanmar & the Region in the 20th Century

17 November 2017
Cinema Room, ADM Library, School of Art, Design & Media, Nanyang Technological University

The examination of Bagyi Aung Soe’s illustrations—the only means to tracing his artistic evolution between 1948 and 1990—led to the awareness of the crucial role played by illustration in the development, dissemination and documentation of art in 20th-century Myanmar. With neither governmental support nor a developed art market, illustration in printed matter was the artist’s mobile showcase and the platform for artistic experimentations. Artists both mainstream and avant-garde illustrated: book covers, magazine covers, album covers, posters, etc. The opposition between “fine art” and “commercial art” is not universal, and specialisation was not necessarily a sine qua non in the art worlds of Myanmar, as in many parts of South and Southeast Asia.

The worlds of artistic creation, literature and filmmaking were symbiotic. Painters wrote; filmmakers painted; poets inspired painters. Burmese writers and poets were in fact ahead of the artists in addressing the urgency and challenges of an autonomous artistic modernity. The rise of Myanmar’s trailblazer of modern art in the years following the country’s political independence was indeed due to the initiatives of Myanmar’s foremost literary figures: Dagon Taya initiated him to Western modernism and Min Thu Wun and Zawgyi nominated him for the Indian government scholarship to study art at the Visva-Bharati University founded by Rabindranath Tagore in Santiniketan, India, for example. The divide between the literary and artistic worlds remains fallacious today.

Intersections of the Literary & Artistic Worlds in Myanmar & the Region in the 20th Century seeks to:

  • investigate the hitherto overlooked medium and agency of illustration in the articulation of “art” in Myanmar and the region;
  • examine instances of collaboration, dialogue, debate or/and contention between painters, cartoonists, writers, poets, filmmakers, editors, publishers, critics, etc. in Myanmar and the region;
  • discern geneses of “art” in Myanmar and the region from the perspective of the literary world;
  • reflect on common threads and divergences in the way(s) in which modern art emerged in tandem with developments in the literary world in Myanmar and the region;
  • explore ways of thinking and writing about “art” beyond that yoked to the Euramerican experience and agenda.

This proposed one-day symposium corresponds to the last leg of the NTU-funded project on, a database of illustrations by Myanmar’s trailblazer of modern art, Bagyi Aung Soe (1923–1990).

Call for Papers

Intersections of the Literary & Artistic Worlds in Myanmar & the Region in the 20th century welcomes papers engaging with any of these above-listed tropes. Areas of interest include but are not restricted to:

  • Illustration as a site for articulating artistic modernities in Myanmar and the region
  • Illustration as a means of making sense of constructs and paradigms of “art” in Myanmar and the region
  • Illustration as image, body and medium in “art” in Myanmar and the region
  • Writings on art and their role(s) in shaping artistic practice, production and reception in Myanmar and the region
  • Literature and the writer in art; art and the artist in literature in Myanmar and the region
  • Narratives of collaboration, dialogue, debate or/and contention between writers, artists, poets, filmmakers, editors, publishers, critics, etc. in Myanmar and the region
  • Ecosystems of writers, artists, poets, filmmakers, editors, publishers, critics, etc. in Myanmar and the region

Burmese-English interpretation can be provided at the symposium. All abstracts must however be submitted in English. Prospective participants who wish to present a paper in absentia or/and remain anonymous are welcomed. Kindly submit your proposals in Word document (.doc or .docx) by  31 July 2017 to

  • title of paper
  • 200-word abstract
  • presenter’s name, affiliation and contact information

Accepted participants will be notified before 31 August  2017. The selection of papers will take into consideration how the contributions might stimulate conversations and debates, and expand perspectives on the topic.

There is no registration fee for the symposium. Independent scholars and students whose papers are accepted can be offered at least partial travel and accommodation assistance.

For updates on the symposium, please keep an eye on this page or write to with the subject: SUBSCRIBE TO UPDATES ON SYMPOSIUM.

Convenor: Yin KER, School of Art, Design & Media | Nanyang Technological University, Singapore


Intersections of the Literary & Artistic Worlds in Myanmar & the Region in the 20th Century on 17 November 2017 is free and open to all. If you can join us, please register by emailing in advance.


The Age of Art Manifestos: The Inter-discursive Struggle Between the ‘New’ & the ‘Real’

This paper examines art manifestos produced by exhibitions as a discursive site where discourses compete for hegemony to fix the meaning and representation of art in a specific way. Art manifestos are a form of exhibitionary discourse that emerged across Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. Chantel Mouffe’s discourse theory is based on the premise that discourses are ways in which we talk about and understand the social world.  Reality is accessible to us through knowledge categories, which are in turn a product of discourse. All discourse and knowledge is historically and culturally specific, and discursively contingent. Discourses are conceived as fixations of meaning that determine a particular way of representing the world. For Mouffe, the discursive struggle arises from competing discourse that seek to achieve hegemony, and determine the meaning of language in a particular way, but does not extend her discourse analysis to account for inter-discursivity between different fields of cultural production that constantly compete and destabilise meaning. This paper examines the art manifesto produced by artist collectives such as the United Artists Front of Thailand and the Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement, Indonesia) as a site for inter-discursivity between visual art and other discourses including literature and popular culture as a discursive struggle for competing notions of the ‘real’ and the ‘new’ that intersects with the social and political contexts of the region and the broader geo-politics of the Cold War.

SENG Yu Jin is a Senior Curator at National Gallery Singapore and previously a full time lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts. His curatorial research extends to exploring ‘relationality,’ conceptualism, socially-engaged artistic practices, as well as unfinished, rejected and unrealised artworks as a productive field of enquiry. Exhibitions he curated and co-curated include From Words to Pictures: Art During the Emergency (2006), The Artists Village: 20 Years On (2008), FX Harsono: Testimonies (2009) and Sudjojono: Lives of Pictures (2014). A PhD candidate at the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne, he currently researches artistic activities and its histories, focusing on the history of exhibitions and artist collectives in Southeast Asia.

“Similar Desires”
Nanyang Siang Pau, 1 November 1950
Image: Lim Cheng Tju

Singapore Cartoons in the Anti-Comics Movement of the 1950s & 1960s

The anti-comics movement spearheaded by the publication of Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent (1954) in America was a global cultural phenomenon in the 1950s and 1960s. The anti-comics movement in Singapore offers an interesting case study as it was part of the anti-yellow culture campaign first initiated by anti-colonial groups in the 1950s and later by the government when Singapore gained independence in the 1960s. As cartoonists were part of the intelligentsia and artists supporting the anti-yellow culture campaign and the anti-colonial movement, how did they critique yellow culture (specifically sexual relations) in their cartoons? By examining how the cartoonists, intelligentsia (writers) and artists interacted and worked together in cooperation but sometimes in conflict with each other, we catch a glimpse of the social anxiety that accompanies new norms and changes in newly independent states in the period of decolonization in the 1960s from the point of view of cartoons and illustrations.

LIM  Cheng  Tju is an educator who writes about history and popular culture. His articles have appeared in the Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture and Print Quarterly. He is the country editor (Singapore) for the International Journal of Comic Art and also the co-editor of Liquid City 2, an anthology of Southeast Asian comics published by Image Comics. He is one of the authors of The University Socialist Club and The Contest for Malaya: Tangled Strands of Modernity (Amsterdam University Press/National University of Singapore Press).

Shadow play and batik meet animation in a still from short film Ulek Mayang: Spirits of the Sea by Hajar Aznam.

The Emergence & Development of Animation & its Aesthetics in Malaysia: An Isolated Field?

There is no tradition of ‘personal expression’ in animation films in Malaysia since its emergence in the 1990s. Most short films were made as moral tales in the 1980s, and final-year projects by students in the late 1990s. Though there is research and development, animation art basically mirrors films from North America and Japan. There is a lack of an ecosystem that unites the worlds of Malaysian literature, fine art and animation which, thus far, have evolved in isolation. The most significant cross-fertilization has been with elements from folk tales and traditional performing arts (specifically shadow play), and textiles (specifically batik) in terms of narratives, design, music and stylistics. This paper will raise questions as to why animation has emerged and developed in relative isolation in Malaysia thus far, and whether an international collaboration might possibly be the answer to the development of an interest in the incorporation of painting into animation films, specifically with conceptual, abstract and experimental approaches which best serve the purpose of uniting animation with painting.

Hassan MUTHALIB is a self-taught artist, designer, animator, film director, writer, film critic, film historian, and educator. He has been in the film industry for half a century, working on short animated films, commercials, public service ads, documentaries and Malaysia’s first animation feature film. He has also curated animation festival programs, and conducted workshops on film and animation in Malaysia and countries around the world. He has received many awards for his films. Recognised as ‘Asian Animation Pioneer’ by NTU Singapore and ‘Father of Malaysian Animation’ by the Malaysian Prime Minister, he was awarded an Honorary Masters by UiTM. Muthalib is the author of two books: Malaysian Cinema in a Bottle (2013) and From Mouse Deer to Mouse: 70 Years of Malaysian Animation (2016). His papers have been published by the British Film Institute, Cornell University Press, MacMillan India, Southeast Asia Research and Cahiers du Cinema.

San Toe
Moway Magazine
Image: Khin Mya Zin

Transformations in the Burmese Short Story, Poem & Magazine Illustration from 1970 to 1990

After the coup in 1962, the  ‘Printing and Publishing Law ’ was enforced . The publication of any literary work required a pre-applied registration certificate , and works that exposed the flaws of the junta’s socialism and their impact on the citizens did not usually pass the strict censorship . This led writers to the intensification of an individualistic aesthetic in the 1970s , with  a significant shift in focus to the characters ’ psychological landscape . In poetry , verse s expressed in a succinct and free-spirited manner replaced the conventional style . The se new literary transformation s were simultaneous with the rise of the modernist style in illustration. Under the influence of Bagyi Aung Soe whose illustrations expressed his inner vision rather than pictured the literary work s in a literal manner, young artists  responded to the change s in poetry and the short story in their illustrations in various magazines in the 1970s. Transformations in  the Burmese S hort S tor y, Poem & M agazine Illustration from 1970 to 1990  will focus on major works result ing from the said transformation s in the short story and poe try , as well as illustration. This presentation will also underscore notable illustrations and magazines.

Khin Mya Zin has been publishing since 1975 and organising and exhibiting in the annual exhibitions of the Gangaw Village (Yangon University) since 1979. She has written more than 180 short stories and novels, including the novel A Small Town Under the Influrence of Darkness. She was awarded the Taw Payar Lay Aung Zay Literary Award and the National Literary Award for Collected Short Stories in 2012. Her book Myanmar Women Artists was awarded the Doctor Tin Shwe Literary Award and translated into English.

Pann Tra (1931–2009)
Cyclo, 1960
Image from Free World,  1961

Aesthetics & Attitudes as Articulated in Modern Khmer Novels

“We must study literature in connection to civilization.”

—Khuon Sokhamphu, Lamnām siksa aksarsastra khmaer [Course for Study of Khmer Literature], 1963.

The approximately concurrent appearance—within two decades, between the late 1930s and the late 1950s—of the first Khmer modern novels, the first realist easel paintings made by Cambodians, the first Cambodian-designed modern concrete architecture, and the first Cambodian-made films, is an extraordinary concentration of historically new artistic forms that is best understood through the mutually informing relationships within and between these various forms.

As there was scant Khmer critical commentary on modern arts and architecture during the decades preceding 1975, how might Khmer novels be read to illuminate attitudes and aesthetics associated with modernity in this period? How do literary discussions of modern arts, culture, and urban environments in post-independence Cambodia intersect with contemporaneous images? That is, what was the interplay between the textual and the visual?

This paper offers close readings of a few Khmer novels published in the early 1960s, concentrating on their descriptions of urban space and youth culture. In these novels, the modern city was described as diverse and cosmopolitan, while also being associated with female promiscuity. Modernity took heterogeneous aesthetic forms, yet architecture, literature, and performing arts had much greater prominence in literary discourse than did paintings.

Roger NELSON is an art historian and independent curator, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-founding co-editor of Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, a journal published by the National University of Singapore Press. Roger completed his PhD at the University of Melbourne, researching modernity and contemporaneity in ‘Cambodian arts’ after independence. He has contributed essays to scholarly journals including ABE Journal: Architecture Beyond Europe, Stedelijk Studies, and Udaya: Journal of Khmer Studies; specialist art magazines; as well as books and numerous exhibition catalogues. He has curated exhibitions and other projects in Australia, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In 2015-16 Roger participated in ‘Ambitious Alignments: New Histories of Southeast Asian Art,’ a research program funded through the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories initiative. He is currently working on a translation of Suon Sorin’s 1961 novel, Brah Aadity Thmei Rah Loe Phaendei Cas [A New Sun Rises Over the Old Land].

Video recordings

Opening remarks | Yin KER

The Age of Art Manifestos: The Inter-discursive Struggle Between the ‘New’ & the ‘Real’ | SENG Yu Jin

Singapore Cartoons in the Anti-Yellow Movement of the 1950s & 1960s | LIM Cheng Tju

The Emergence & Development of Animation & its Aesthetics in Malaysia: An Isolated Field? | Hassan MUTHALIB

Transformations in the Burmese Short Story, Poem & Magazine Illustration from 1970 to 1990 | Khin Mya Zin

Aesthetics & Attitudes as Articulated in Modern Khmer Novels | Roger NELSON

With gratitude to:

Lew Huey Shan, Vincent Liew Weh Siang, Phoebe Lim Choon Lan, Liu Yajing, Muhammad Ridzal Bin Abdul Hamid,
Mas Romi Bin Mohamed Sukaimi, Hedren Sum Wai Yuan, Adrian Tan Peng Chai