In 2005, Nge Lay visited her husband's hometown, Thuye'dan Village - an isolated place, 340 km from Yangon, where the main economic activities were chopping down the forest and making charcoal. It was also next door to an ammo factory, so the people had become scared of cameras and foreigners: anything that might invite the wrath of the government.
Nge Lay: What really affected us was the condition of the children in the village. Aung Ko’s mother happened to be a teacher to the children and sold savoury snacks to the kids. We went to help her out and thereby came into direct contact with the kids.

We asked these kids what they wanted to do when they grew up and their answers really shocked us. Because 9 out of 10 kids said they would like to work in Singapore or Malaysia or Thailand when they were older. These kids had no idea what they would do when they got to these countries. They just knew they wanted to get there.

Those who were the same age as us, sometimes equally educated, were playing billiards or drinking at tea shops, and had no idea what they were doing – they were all just very confused. I think they were wasting their youth.
Nge Lay and her husband (Aung Ko) were determined to do something about this. So they spent two years saving up money to do an art project: the 1st Thuye'dan Village Art Project 2007. A horde of artists came over - Aung Myint, Aung Way, Cho Iwin, Kyee Myint, Moe Satt, Sann Oo, Than Htay Maung, Tun Win Aung, Wah Nu - many intrigued by the prospect of doing a show in a non-urban space. 

And of course, they staged crazy stunts there, cavorting almost-nude, burying themselves in sandbanks near the Ayerawady, constructing huge multi-coloured mobile sculptures along the farmland, much to the bewilderment of bystanders.
Nge Lay: There were two groups of people in the village: those who wanted to cooperate with us and work with us and those who were still very scared, standing on the side and looking at what we were doing.

The feelings were on the verge of explosion, so the artists allowed their performances to be explosive.

As usual, the Special Branch Police found out what we were doing and interrogated us. They asked us what we were doing: whether we were protesting, whether we were against the government. They also told the villagers not to cooperate with us the next time we were in the village. So because the villagers were told not to cooperate with us, they actually invited us to come over again next year.
Since then, there've been four iterations of the Thuye'dan Village Art Project, in 2008, 2010 and 2011. The group of artists has been slightly different each time - many of the second crop were cartoonists, yet many of them did performance art (imagine Jim Davis of Garfield fame, doing performance art in a Midwestern farming town!). In fact, a few of the performance artists involved are members of Alter U.

Graphic designers and artists donated works so they could hold the village's very first art exhibition, in the school - some kids were picked by lucky draw to take the artworks home. Villagers were so inspired by the works that they decided to start their own library - their hunger for knowledge had been awakened; they were no longer frogs in a well.

As for the artists, they started roving around the area, engaging with new villages, discovering new settings for artworks, including an amazing riverside cliffs carved with Buddhas which a harbourmaster used to accept in lieu of payment. (Some village sites were getting too popular - three artists had to share the sandbank by 2011!) 
And crucially, artists and villagers have grown closer. Nge Lay's own work reflects this: when she first created Memories of Restricted Things, based on her memory of her father, it consisted of just her in male drag, wearing a mask next to a woman and child. Her more recent poses feature her surrounded by villagers, reflecting the fatherlessness of many of the village kids, as well as the general sense that the nation is missing a true father-figure. Together, in the misty realm of art, they've become a family.
Nge Lay: It has become a win-win situation. The artists involved at first did not expect to have their artworks ehxibitied anywhere outside the village, but their works have ben exhibited more internationally.

And the villagers now have a library, and the kids are interested in thinking critically, and have started to say they want to become artists and writers and intellectuals.
Artists and writers and intellectuals? Oh dearie dearie me.

P.S. KS says originally he'd thought of bringing the FCP group to the village. But they're still nervous about foreigners. The factory's still cranking out ammunition, y'know.


10/17/2013 17:26

A great honorable initiative from Nge Lay and her husband. I am looking forward meeting Nge Lay at the upcoming Singapore Biennale '13 where her art work will be presented.


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