Friday, September 23, 2016

The Cultural Scene Flourishes at the Goethe Institute Yangon

The time has come to publish my long planned article about the Goethe Institute Myanmar

I would start by thanking the Director Franz Xaver Augustin for the many interesting events organised by his team and for his enthusiastic commitment in promoting cultural exchanges in Myanmar. 

I was merely a constant guest at their cultural events. However, after each event I left happy knowing that I had the chance to meet amazing local and foreign (mostly German) artists and writers. Personally, I find the Goethe Institute the most active organiser of cultural events in Yangon. These kinds of events are attended by the local and expat community alike in a city where the art scene and the cultural exchanges are starting to flourish. 

Goethe Institute started to organise events in the beautiful but run-down colonial villa on the Kabar Aye Pagoda Road since early 2015. The building has its own agitated history. It was built shortly before or during the WWI most probably by an European.  In the 1920s the house was purchased by a wealthy family of Chinese origin. During the Japanese bombing of Rangoon many rich people left the city together with the British. That is the reason why the villa was empty at the end of WWII. Most notably it served as the headquarter of the Burmese independence movement of Aung San’s and U Nu’s Antifascist People’s Freedom League for a few years after the war. With his coup, General Ne Win put an end to the activities of the party and closed the office. Later in time the villa hosted the Yangon State School of the Arts. In 2013, the Ministry of Culture offered the building as the future premises of the Goethe-Institute. 

The villa will host the offices of the Institute and also to offer space for exhibitions. 

For the past year it was only used as an exhibition space and for cultural events because the building is in need of restoration. Finally all the paperwork is ready and permission is granted by the authorities to start the long-awaited restoration of this splendid building. The works will probably last more than one year and will start this October.

You will find below my photographs documenting some of the various events which took place this past year at the Goethe Villa, all in the presence of the artists and writers.

August 2015 - The Storyteller exhibition - Artist Htein Lin.  
My interview with Htein Lin is here.


This painting made by Htein Lin while in prison is called "Pon-San Tain". It shows the squatting position of the prisoners. Sometimes they were forced in this position for several hours during the time they were being counted or when a senior prison official was visiting for inspection.

Htein Lin's on-going project called "A Show of Hands" (dozens of plaster molds of hands of former political prisoners) was part of the same exhibition.

January 2016 - Yangon Backstage Exhibition - Photographer Wolfgang Bellwinkel 

The photographer said " I believe the historical center of Yangon, the place where I took the photos, reflects the status quo in Myanmar very well; the condition and state of an unsettled and at the same time - because of the political changes – euphoric society in transition, a society whose future seems uncertain."

January 2016, Reading by Jan-Philipp Sendker

The novels "Herzenhören" ("The Art of Hearing Heartbeats") and "Herzenstimmen" ("A Well Tempered Heart"), both set in Myanmar, are international bestsellers and have become popular travel reading for visitors to Myanmar.

March 2016 -  Photography Exhibition by Hans Silvester

Hans Silvester speaks with the media during his exhibition which shows the life of shepherd boys in the remote Omo Valley  in Ethiopia. He was a jury in the Yangon Photo Festival organized by the French Institute. Goethe Institute hosted some photography exhibitions during the Photo Festival as well.

March 2016 -  Marked For Life - Photographer Jens-Uwe Parkitny

Jens-Uwe Parkitny made various trips to the often remote villages of the southern Chin State returning with these fascinating portraits which, with the very painful procedure of tattooing now prohibited, record this unique practice of the Chin for posterity.

March 2016 -  Papermoon Puppet Theater from Indonesia - Mwatirika Play

The play Mwatirika touches upon the most oppressive political taboo of Indonesia: the killing of many hundreds of thousands of people, mainly communists, in 1965-66 during the months of transition from the rule of Sukarno to that of General Suharto.

August 2016 - Picking Up the Pieces exhibition - Artist Htein Lin

Htein Lin's recent art installations cast a critical glance on the rapid changes affecting all areas and stages of life in today’s Myanmar.

August 2016 - Reading by Ma Thida from her memoir

"Prisoner of Conscience: My Steps Through Insein" is the stirring prison memoir of Ma Thida, a surgeon, activist, writer, and recipient of several international human rights awards who spent six years in prison.

August 2016 -Targets - Photographer Herlinde Koelbl

For years Herlinde Koelbl travelled around the world (30 countries) and made photographs of the military targets used in the training of soldiers. These are - if you will - icons, with which the various armies of the world learn the craft of war. During the opening evening Herline Koelbl presented her various photography projects.

September 2016 -Ephemeral Villa Party

Goethe Institute has organised the 25th edition of the European Film Festival which recently took place in Yangon. At the end of the opening ceremony, the Institute invited the guests to their villa for a party. They have also invited 10 young artists from Yangon to paint the walls of the former State School of the Arts since the building will undergo renovations as of October.
Details about all their events can be found on the events page of the Goethe Institute Myanmar.

Finally I asked the Director of the Goethe Institute Myanmar, Franz Xaver Augustin:  

- "What's next? I hope you will continue this amazing trend by organising future exhibitions and events in a temporary location. Can you please let us know more?"

Franz Xaver Augustin:

 -  During the renovations work at the villa we will continue our music programmes (two in November, two in January and February 2017) at other venues in Yangon. We are working on the permission to present a big exhibition by German artist Wolfgang Laib at the “Secretariat” in January 2017. And then we might have some exhibitions in the half ready building of the new auditorium next to the villa. Let me see, what is possible…”.

I am very happy to hear that Goethe Institute will continue their ambitious cultural programme in the second part of the year as well. Once again congratulations Goethe Institute for your amazing work!

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