Of the three prize-winning works, those by Singaporean Robert Zhao used techniques of digital manipulation to depict narratives of climate change, while Indonesian Fajar Riyanto staged photographic tableaux of families displaced by gentrification. But it was Shwe’s images of bodily memento mori that emerged as the front-runner.
Bodies and blooms
The lockdown in Myanmar in 2020 proved more difficult for some than others. I Do Miss Hospital Visit was borne of the physical and emotional discomfort that characterised the period for Shwe, who was trapped in her apartment and cut off from regular visits to her physician. She observes that “struggling with back pain, I did not even feel like getting out of bed some days.” She suffers from a life-long health condition - angiolipomas, or benign subcutaneous tumours - which resulted in five operations by the age of thirty. As she relates it, she had undergone her first operation by her first birthday, and, by her middle school years, had experienced several more. Being obliged to undergo similar procedures every five or six years would become one of the defining rituals of her life.
The silver lining in the cloud, however, was the realisation of her own physical and emotional resources, which has translated into a fascination with the idea of self-portraiture, and her own body and its markers of past trauma. The images in the series were created from digitally scanning the scars on her body, along with CT scans from previous medical procedures, and juxtaposing these with dried and decaying flowers, as well as old family photographs, that serve as signifiers of mortality, and the inexorable passing of time.
Creating the ’Hospital Visit’ series
The stories behind the making of the Hospital Visit series are revealing. The artist, who works with both digital and analogue photographic processes, spends time developing film and scanning negatives. While working with the scanner, it struck her, during the lockdown, that it was entirely possible to scan her body. It would be a personal mode of self-portraiture, of truly reflecting the condition of her own corporeal and psychological states. By picturing her scars alongside withering flowers, these images, in her own words, “ask questions and create metaphors for the decline of one’s body and health, and how one might find outlets out of a confined situation.”
In the context of her everyday life, flowers are a pertinent symbol. Shwe is given to having vases of flowers in her apartment, but while Myanmar was in the grip of the pandemic, the blooms would decay in their containers over long periods of time simply because of a reluctance to leave her home to purchase new ones. For her, the sight of these withered flowers resonated with the frustration, and resulting pain, from not being able to visit the hospital, and worries about her ongoing medical issues.
She remarks that working on this series allowed her a measure of catharsis. “Someone said fear is often born out of ignorance and encountering the unknown”, she writes. “The former can be dismissed, but the latter is inevitable. All of us share this uncertainty. Despite the fact that the world is in chaos right now, I am trying to be at peace. Creating these works let the doubts and frustrations within myself be the little light that pushed me through this darkness.”
Creating and staying alive
Before she began practising full-time as a photographer, Shwe worked as a researcher for over a decade with U.N. agencies and international NGOs, in the areas of gender and development. In 2017, she joined a workshop for female Burmese photographers organised by Myanmar Deitta, a Yangon-based, non-profit organisation devoted to documentary photography, filmmaking and multimedia production. The workshop was conducted by Chilean photographer, Ari Espay, and proved to be a transformational experience.
It was there that she picked up the necessary skills and knowledge that laid the foundation for her present career, and, just as importantly, connected her to other local women who were working in the field of photography, creating a network that she maintains to this day. At the end of the workshop, the participants banded together to found a collective, with the production of a photo story as the litmus test for their commitment and synergy.
The Thuma Collective, as they named themselves, was launched in late 2017 with seven members. The name means “she” in the Burmese language, and is commonly utilised as a collective reference for women. Today, the group is one of the most visible in Myanmar’s photography scene, remaining conspicuous through the diverse practices of its various members - which include Shwe herself, and figures such as Yu Yu Myint Than and Rita Khin - but also organising photography and visual storytelling workshops by both international and local instructors, photo review sessions, photo walks, photo-book workshops and artists’ talks.
The artist observes that her experience with Thuma has had significant impact in shaping her practice: “The past four years with the Thuma Collective have played an instrumental role in the growth of my artistic career. The collective has supported its members with capacity-building programs, and made a great difference to my skills and confidence levels.”
Taking the leap
It was also in 2017 that she participated in the Angkor Photo Festival in Siem Reap, Cambodia, which included a sponsored workshop for emerging photographers from Asia. She was mentored by Antoine d’Agata and Sohrab Hura. The Angkor workshop was, by her own account, a challenging experience, but also a vital journey in self-reflection. As a direct result of being pushed to envision her future as a photographer, she left regular employment to embrace the life of a full-time artist, and has not looked back since, referring to it as one of the best decisions of her life.
Despite the whole-hearted commitment to her new profession, being a photographer in Myanmar has proven less than easy. “It’s both a struggle and encouraging at the same time,” Shwe remarks. “In a country where the market is small and there’s almost no active contemporary photography scene, it’s really difficult. It’s more challenging for female photographers. The biggest issue for me, though, is staying focused, and resisting the impulse to self-censor, which is the result of working in a traditional, patriarchal society. I have to create and stay alive.”
Digital media and current realities
The Julius Baer Next Generation Art Prize is aimed at the creative voices of the future, engaging with a medium that is fast becoming the visual currency of everyday life in the twenty-first century: the digital image. One of the strengths of digital recording technology is popular access, allowing for a far broader circulation of images and ideas, beyond a narrow range within a prescribed infrastructure.
Shwe Wutt Hmon is representative of how digital technology and the wired revolution have enabled artists like herself to express their personal visions. The contemporary art and photography scenes in Myanmar are limited, with few opportunities for formal training in photography and new media. In comparison with their counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries, Burmese artists are at a disadvantage.
However, with a younger generation of artists returning to the country after being educated abroad, new media practices in Myanmar are coming into its own. Shwe, though she began her practice with analogue processes, is currently exploring, and experimenting with, the digital medium. Other Burmese artists, such as Moe Myat May Zarchi, who is a finalist in the Moving Image category of the Next Generation Art Prize, likewise work across a wide range of media.
“I was initially self-taught and started from a traditional approach,” Shwe acknowledges. “Over time, however, I also found the internet to be an incredible playground with many possibilities to connect - to research, explore and showcase my artistic practice. Platforms like Instagram, for instance, with its filter features, really drew my curiosity, giving me space to experiment with AR technology and also making me think about questions regarding exploitation, and new ways of storytelling.”
Staying vigliant amidst political unrest
With the takeover of a military government in February this year, everyday life in Myanmar has taken on dimensions that were unimaginable even a mere twelve months ago, when the country was in the midst of the pandemic. As she relates it, “What is happening in Myanmar is much worse than the outside world can imagine. No one is safe at all. I was never a photojournalist, but the fate that has befallen my country has called me to act, to respond from who I am as a person. I have been documenting the protests on the streets. Now it’s extremely difficult for myself and fellow photographers to go out and take pictures because the situation is extremely dangerous for anyone with a camera. Sometimes I’m terrified. I try not to panic and to stay vigilant.”
“I am struggling emotionally,” she ends off, “but, physically, it seems almost too luxurious. I can still carry on with daily living - eating, sleeping, reading, watching films and making art. It is an irony.”
Living in the moment
The volatility and unpredictability of the situation in Myanmar has made it difficult to plan ahead, or consider upcoming projects. “I can hardly think ahead and plan what I will do next,” she observes. “I am an intuitive person. Almost all of my works start and develop organically, over time. At this point, I think I would like to reflect on my ongoing works and explore those at greater depth, rather than developing a new project. I would like to slow down my pace and take time to reflect on my projects. I also would like to think, test and develop my work into a variety of formats, such as making photo books, mixed media installations and collaborations.”