Life and Art of Hlaing Bwa

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Hlaing Bwa’s best works capture the beauty, melancholia and emotional nuances of femininity and nature in all its forms. A life-long impressionist, his favourite subjects include female and child portraits and Myanmar landscapes in oil and acrylic. Although a simple and quiet person, Hlaing Bwa’s works project an emotional vitality and boldness even in his depictions of routine everyday life. His unique impressionistic approach to colour in particular creates an emotional resonance that underlines his status as one of the leading senior painters.  Among his key influences are Myanmar masters U Ba Nyan, U Ba Yin Galay and U Lun Gywe.  His favourite foreign artists include Monet, Picasso and John Singer Sergeant. His art works have exhibited in over 14 shows overseas including USA, Europe, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore. 

Hlaing Bwa 001 ps

“In the Garden”
Acrylic, 80cm  x 60cm, 2012

Being an Artist


Born in 1950 as the third of four siblings, Hlaing Bwa was brought up by his two elder sisters, both school teachers, after his parents passed away in his early childhood.

He started painting when he was 12 years old and decided then to become a painter.  While he described himself as a quiet boy, he was very determined and even stubborn in his ambition to pursue a career as a painter.

At first, his family was opposed to him being an artist. One day, his sister bought him a book about an old art master Saya Chone (1866-1917), who was a royal painter. He thought his sister had finally decided to encourage him in his dream of being a painter. When she asked if he had finished the book, she pointedly asked, “do you know how Saya Chone died after all?” (Saya Chone, who was expelled from the Royal Palace after the British occupation of Burma, died alone in a dressing room of a cemetery.) She was apparently worried about the poverty and loneliness of an artistic career in Myanmar, and wanted to drive home the point with Saya Chone’s biography. However, the young Hlaing Bwa got a different message from the book: despite all the hardships, Saya Chone never gave up his dream of being an artist.  The story inspired him even more.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Biology from the University of Rangoon, he started studying art under art master U Thein Han for four years. It was at the art lessons that he first met his long-term fellow painters including Peter Tayzar Lin, Pyeet Sone and Khin Myint Aung, all of who became the founding members of Golden Valley Art Centre (a.k.a. GV). 

 

Hardship

Of course, being an artist in Myanmar in the 1970’s and 1980’s was extremely difficult. Nonetheless, he recalled his happiest moments were during his days of poverty in the early 1970’s.  He fondly recalled his surprise when he brought his painting to the Artists and Artisans Association in Bogyoke Aung San Market to show the painting to them and they bought his painting right away, much to his astonishment. The small oil painting was of a lady wearing flowers while looking at a mirror. He went there with empty pocket and came back with some money.

The real hardship for Hlaing Bwa was not financial but health related. He has been suffering from neurological and nerve-related health problems since 1984. Doctors have advised him to stop painting for three years since then. It was a huge and punishing setback for a painter as devoted as Hlaing Bwa.  Despite doctors’ orders, he painted two to three days in a week! When he was in better condition, he painted almost everyday. 


Paintings of Family 

Hlaing Bwa married when he was 45 years old, which was arranged by his sister who explained - “You cannot manage your life without somebody’s help”.  His wife is also a school teacher like his sisters.  GV owner Zeyar Thinn recalled that before his marriage, Hlaing Bwa painted in mostly blue, grey and dark colors. After his marriage, he started to paint with brighter colors. Now he lives with seven family members including his wife, two sisters-in-law, two nieces and a nephew.

Hlaing Bwa always uses family members and neighbors as his models.  When his nieces were young, he painted a series of child paintings. One of his personal favourite paintings is of his niece as a child hugging a kitten.  When he painted it, the kitten suddenly jumped onto the bed beside the child. He liked it very much so he presented it to the GV owner, Peter Tayzar Lin.  It should be somewhere in GV, he said. As little nieces grew up, he started painting young ladies with flowers and in the room, which became his signature motif over the past two decades.

One day Hlaing Bwa showed me the photos of his models on his brand-new tablet.  One of them was an old photo showing the back of a young girl wearing a longy. It was an unusually bold photo of a young girl posing in front of a camera 20 years ago. It captured the essence of Hlaing Bwa’s signature female portrait paintings – a feeling of melancholia, loneliness and longing for love.

 

Best Friend and Happy Memory

The background of the particular photo was a desk and shelves, which was covered by bottles, books and papers pilled up. “I used to live alone in my own studio. Paint alone and eat alone.” Now he paints almost everyday at GV, eats lunch together with other painters there.  

When asked who was his best friend, Hlaing Bwa smiled and said, “I never thought about it, but must be U Myo Lwin (a.k.a. Peter Tayzar Lin)”.

He vividly recalled one happy moment on a photo taking trip with Peter in the early 1980’s, when they suddenly felt very tired on the way back to Yangon.  They decided to take a nap on a haystack beside the road. When they woke up, he saw a very beautiful afternoon sky in front of him.  It was a care-free time in his time, when he was young, healthy with little worries in life.

 

Interviewed by Pirica Art Centre on 7 February 2013

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