Counter-historiography and the discourse against Burmese-centric narratives from a localised, non-Burman perspective have always been the core of Sawangwongse Yawnghwe's artistic practice. Yawnghwe's work interweaves reality and fabrications from historic scenes, family photos, and his father's notes left behind. With his meticulous research, he interacts with scholars of Burma, human-right activists, journalists, and writers. He employs research methodology to draw on philosophical discourses, reflecting upon the validity of history when ethnic minorities' narratives are dissolved and eradicated. Meanwhile, he criticises the merging of modernism with capitalism. His work depicts the paradoxical contradictions as well as political fluidity and its aftermaths.
Many Shans and other people from Burma have been in exile for decades. Compared with the literal definition of 'exile,' the Shan story is further cast in a diasporic light, not only because of their forced expulsion by the military, but also because of poignant nostalgia for a homeland that no longer exists. Haunted by the shattered dream of returning home, Yawnghwe has long experienced loss for the homeland he never had. As Slavoj Žižek wrote in Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation of Dialectical Materialism, Malcolm X adopted 'X' as his family name, signaling the deprivation of familial ancestry, ethnic roots, and culture when his ancestors were sold and taken away from their homeland as slaves. Rather than summoning Africans to fight to return to their homeland, the idea was to encourage people to seize the opportunity provided by X — to acknowledge their new lack of identity caused by their enslavement that has forever stripped them of their roots.
To dismantle the idea of X, Yawnghwe takes X as the subject, and returns to the outset of the catastrophic exile of his family to start anew from ground zero, for his latest solo exhibition at TKG+, Burmese History X. It is another ontological new start in contrast to his former solo exhibition in 2019, Yawnghwe Office in Exile / State Museum / Absoluter Gegenstoss / Absolute Recoil, and will continue to develop. Yawnghwe's painting can be defined as post-structuralism, which claims the impossibility for a neutral, omniscient point of view to exist outside a text. Based on the collection of family photographs and the archives he has compiled, he allows Burmese iconography and contemporary art to coalesce. By juxtaposing imagery of pictures with colour blocks, the artist reimagines the figurative and the abstract as one single image. The sectioning and shifting of the re-presented images and colour blocks render a space of liberation that is almost indescribable. The disruption of colour blocks in the composition symbolises the disintegration of traditional forms.
For Yawnghwe, the colour blocks in the composition can be purely abstract, while sometimes the colours are selected deliberately, even the same colour can stand for different meanings. For instance, the white, green, yellow, and red commonly seen in his work are also the Shan flag's colour. However, the green colour sometimes symbolises the Burma's army, the yellow for Burma's colonial rule, and the red for the courageous spirit and blood of the Shan people. Whereas the black could denote mystery, it could also be a salute to the monochromatic painting artist, Ad Reinhardt. The purple and the blue, on the other hand, bear a connection to royalty. These colours in the composition allow viewers' imagination to expand poetically and bring abstraction closer to reality.
The phrases in Yawnghwe's works are quotes from his father's notes, written on pieces of paper clipped together and carefully kept with him for years. Yawnghwe considers the phrases as signifiers, bridging the concepts in his work just like family pictures. In his latest work on view in this exhibition, he combines these phrases with a new form of composition. For instance, in X18 (Faded into oblivion), X 29 (Saw Ba U Gyi) and X 37 (Sao Kya Seng), the images and phrases blend in with the hazy background, becoming a poetic manifestation of radical immaterialism and pure philosophy.
Press release courtesy TKG+.