Life and Art of Zay Yar Aye

A contemporary artist, an art teacher and educator, a gallery owner, a designer, a writer, a scholar and a philanthropist, with variety of identities, Zay Yar Aye is also a son of the late Myanmar painter U Tin Aye.   After studying Western Art in Japan and developing his own techniques and views of art, he devoted his talent and time to nurture and develop the standard of art education in Myanmar through his teaching tenure in the National University of Art and Culture in Yangon.

After leaving the university, Zay Yar Aye has been active in the art scene at Space Art Gallery. He remains a passionate and dedicated art teacher inspiring his students by his own passion for learning.  He has developed signature contemporary painting styles in his series; like, "Lady" or "In the rain". He often indulges his works with composed gold leaves, which would be influenced by Japanese “Makie. His works are far from labeling and categorizing, as in he is eagerly searching for varied meanings and visions of art.


ZYA 002 lady-30, 19x52inches, acrylic

"Lady - 30”
 Acrylic, 19”x52” (48cm x 132cm)


Early Life and Father – the Late U Tin Aye

Zay Yar Aye was born in 1974 in Mandalay. His father was U Tin Aye, the famous painter and art teacher, who had taught in the State School of Fine Arts (a.k.a. SSFA) in Mandalay. When Zay Yar Aye was 15 years old 1993, the family moved to Yangon due to U Tin Aye’s new opportunity as an art teacher in the National University of Art and Culture (a.k.a. the University of Culture) established in 1993. It was good move for the painter simply because the art scene in Yangon was much more happening than in Mandalay or other cities in Myanmar.


In this environment, Zay Yar Aye was naturally interested in painting ever since child and won several art awards during his school days. He was encouraged by his father to be an artist but not by his mother. She worried her son to suffer financial difficulty just as most of painters generally faced. Eventually, his decision made his father happier. In 1993 Zay Yar Aye entered in the Department of Painting in the University of Culture as the first batch students. Although Zay Yar Aye himself is very energetic and active person, he describes his father was “much more energetic and enthusiastic than me! I even felt tired when we were together… His aura was so strong”. U Tin Aye passed away in 2010. Now his legacy is inside of his artist son.



The University of Culture and Early Career

Zay Yar Aye recalled the first few years of the University was so tough due to the rather experimental but unfocused curriculum. In addition to six art majors of Drawing, Art Technology, Design, Art History, Anatomy and Myanmar Traditional Art, the students had to complete nine academic subjects of Myanmar, English, Math, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, Physics, History and Economics, which took more than one month to complete semester examinations. The students were too busy to practice art! Fortunately, when he was in junior, the curriculum was modified and only Myanmar and English were remained as academic subjects.


In 1997 Zay Yar Aye graduated the University as the second best student. At that time, from the first to tenth best students automatically could get a position in any governmental institutions. He wished to work in the Archeological Department but was assigned as a tutor of his alma mater. It was totally surprising for him that he was appointed as a teacher of Anatomy. Before his assignment, Anatomy was taught by sculpture teachers. He confessed that he had not understood Anatomy enough to teach students and it was quite painful experience.


Art Education in Japan

The experience and knowledge gained in Japan highly influence his attitude and even character, Zay Yar Aye admitted. “I used to be edgy and proud young man who did not realize how small world I knew but believed I knew everything”.


For total three years from year 2002 to 2006, Zay Yar Aye was sent to Tokyo, Japan as a government student to study art education in Tokyo Gakugei University. Myanmar used to send art students to Japan but the program was ceased due to the political situation for over three decades. He was selected as one of the first students of the reopened program financed by the Japanese Government. The Department of Western Art was the place he studied as a research student for the first year. He did not take too long to get used to live in Japan since he was found of Japanese culture and customs, like its cleanliness, neatness and punctuality. Despite his supervisors’ anxieties, Japanese language was not a serious barrier for him with two years of intensive lessons. Even now he speaks, reads and writes excellent Japanese.  From 2004 to 2005, Myanmar Government did not issue the approval disregarding the original plan, so that he had to come back to Myanmar once. Due to strong recommendation and approach from Tokyo Gakugei University, he finally got next approval in 2005 and successfully completed Master’s degree in the following year.



Eye Opening Experiences in Japan

It was first time ever that he learnt art conceptually. Tokyo Gakugei University is originally a university of teachers’ education, therefore, their curriculum included not only art related but also education such as Art Education, Teaching Methods and Educational Psychology.  It made him socked that such abundant curriculums were taught by only three professors, while his university had about 25 teachers for less than 100 students. Zay Yar Aye recalls how eye opening and exciting to take every lecture of Educational Psychology by Professor Itoi, from whom he always absorbed every word like water. After the lectures, he often wrote long letters (sometimes over 20 pages!) to the Headmaster of the University of Culture, U Thein Soe, to share what he learnt. The letters were put up on the notice board in the University and students also could share the tip of his excitement.


The Department of Western Art in Tokyo Gakugei University organized the student art show every year. It was very stressful event for all the students because the professors criticized their artwork thoroughly without mercy.  But Zay Yar Aye was quite confident and, in his own words, rather conceited about his art works. He submitted a watercolor still life, which everyone admired in the show. “I want to hang your painting in my living room and admire,” Professor Shibata from Art Education said, yet continued, “but that’s all about this painting”. Zay Yar Aye was shocked like struck by lightning. The professor implied “art” must be something more than just sweet and comfortable. The first time in his life, Zay Yar Aye was not able to touch brushes for a few months after the show. Since then, he started refraining the questions, which never have answers, “what is the definition of art?”, “what is an artist?” and “why I paint?”


About a decade after the experience in Japan, can he answer those questions now? “Of course, it is impossible to get “right” answers for those questions.” But he thinks he has his own understanding of art at least better than before. “Now challenge is not only to understand it but how to apply it into my art” as probably all the artists struggling to.  



Challenges in Art Education in Myanmar

“Without appropriate art education and discipline, artists could be very selfish and narrow-minded because they basically work and create alone without any guidance or communications”. After he came back to Myanmar, his mandate was to tackle for improvement of art education in Myanmar. However, the difficulty was beyond his imagination.


When he visited the higher-authority to report his return to Myanmar in 2006, Zay Yar Aye was told, “We gave you enough chance to study abroad. From now on, you should forget everything you learnt in Japan”. So… what was the point to send him abroad? He was totally confused. But if the authority intended to suppress him not to object to the existing system, it did not work at all. Zay Yar Aye was full of energy to introduce new art education concepts and to improve institutional system in the University of Culture.


Talking about Myanmar art education (at that time), many students even in the Department of Fine Art had never draw or painted before entering the University. So teachers need to teach them from very basic, which is far from real higher education in other countries. For most of the students, their main purpose was just to get degree.  Myanmar art teachers’ skills and techniques are excellent but not many of them aware of importance of art education. In this circumstance, it was obviously hard to persuade teachers and authorities to accept the needs and act for changes. Zay Yar Aye often proposed new ideas of improvements in monthly faculty meetings or “durbar”, yet, only sometimes he could make visible changes, like canceling unnecessary administrative system or introducing new subjects in the curriculum. Despite of a hand full of obstacles, what motivated him most was that he could see many students were so excited to learn new concept of art as Zay Yar Aye was in Japan. The Headmaster, U Thein Soe was also broad-minded supporter of his challenges. Zay Yar Aye mentioned the curriculum in the university seems to be improving slowly but firmly. But he still expects more professional art educators to be developed for the further development of Myanmar art.



New Departure - Space Art Gallery

In 2007, Zay Yar Aye was assigned to be the headmaster of the SSFA in Yangon. He served there as a temporally headmaster but his intention was not in management but in classrooms as an educator. After the Cyclone Nargis in 2008, he decided to quit the position from SSFA and the Ministry finally agreed him to go back to the University of Culture. In 2009, he quit the University of Culture and became freelance artist.


Meanwhile, Zay Yar Aye and his fellow artists established Space Art Gallery in 2007 to focus on their creative work and exhibit their paintings constantly. Now the gallery provides private art classes to children and adults weekly. As of 2013, they have four art instructors and over 40 students. Zay Yar Aye keeps carrying on his passionate dedication to art education in Myanmar.



(Interviewed by Pirica Art Centre in 2013)

  ©  since 2014