Social change can come from art

By Aye Min Soe

Traditional hand weaving of textiles in Chin State. PHOTO: Salai kyaw moe tun
Traditional hand weaving of textiles in Chin State. PHOTO: Salai kyaw moe tun

In Myanmar, about 60 per cent of the handicrafts or folk art comes from ethnic areas in the hilly regions and rural areas. But one of the main problems we are facing in Myanmar today is that the country’s younger generation is not interested in making handicrafts or learning the folk art of their ancestors. Many have turned to easy ways for making money, including cutting down trees illegally. Some have become drug addicts, mostly in ethnic areas because there are so few decent jobs for youths. The kind of utensils we use on a daily basis could be a barometer of the possible extinction of our folk art. Instead of using the utensils made in the traditional way using chemical-free products such as dyes made from seeds, fruits and trees from forests, the local people today in the “Yaw” region in upper Myanmar have turned to utensils made using modern chemical methods. The “Yaw” longyis, which were very popular in the country in the past and known for its hand-made quality using chemical-free methods, are now lacking in the original quality as the products are chemically dyed. This is also occurring with the traditional hand weaving of textiles in hilly areas, especially in Chin and Kachin State, handicrafts in Mon State, and ceramics in Kyaukmyaung near Mandalay and in Twantay near Yangon. Pin-ni, or saffron-coloured textiles for Burmese national dress (a colour that is also the trademark for the democracy struggles against the military in Myanmar), were originally woven from red cotton and made by hand in rural areas. This is no longer the case.

While demand for some traditional animal papier mâché toys is falling fast, papier mâché cows are still popular for children in Myanmar.   Photo: Aye Min Soe
While demand for some traditional animal papier mâché toys is falling fast, papier mâché cows are still popular for children in Myanmar.  
Photo: Aye Min Soe

Traditionally made products, despite their high quality and safe methods, is disappearing from the market as they cannot compete with the products made using modern techniques. Another example can be found in Inle lake. Local crafters used to make a living producing furniture and other products with an antique appearance. But the market for these items disappeared as cheaper plastic products became popular. This has forced many artisans to pursue the wrong path toward fighting and illegal activity. With the youths of the country facing hardship to get jobs, the successive government can create jobs by fostering a market for folk arts. There is an opportunity to market and sell products for a fair price that are valued elsewhere. For example, we can buy a Chin traditional hand-made textile for Ks50,000 in Chin State, but the price reaches around Ks200,000 at the Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon. There is market opportunity in many similar places. We have also already observed how social change can come from art. The technique of creating sand paintings in Bagan was taught to Myanmar artists, resulting in local people earning income from selling their works of wall paintings on canvas with the use of new techniques disseminated by the artist. This has empowered these artists, creatively as well as commercially. To sum up, if we can promote the folk arts and find a market for them, the country’s new generation, including the marginalized ethnic youths who are currently holding arms and undertaking illegal business, will be helpful for peace process.

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