The life, work and fish of Arker Kyaw

Artist Arker Kyaw found notoriety in 2012 with a mural of Barack Obama and more recently has been expressing life’s struggles on canvas with a pet fish as his muse.

By JARED DOWNING | FRONTIER

IN 2012, artist Ko Arker Kyaw attracted international media attention with a graffiti mural in Yangon welcoming President Barack Obama ahead of his historic visit to Myanmar, the first by a sitting American head of state.

Now, as one of the country’s emerging contemporary artists, Arker Kyaw (also known as “Night” in the street art world) is taking his painting to new depths: his pet fish.

The “Luckie and Me” exhibition at River Gallery in downtown Yangon from June 7 to 18 will feature paintings inspired by Arker Kyaw’s pet arowana fish, “Luckie”.

But the paintings are more than doting portraits: For months, Arker Kyaw has obsessed over the subtle movements and patterns of his arowana, and his bright, almost neon-painted fish swim in large, black canvasses with both electricity and grace.

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“I realised when the water is very deep, the water is very dark, like James Cameron going into the deepest ocean,” Arker Kyaw said, referring to the Canadian film director’s world record deepest manned solo dive in a submersible that descended to 10,908 metres in the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench in 2012.

The golden fish struggling in the dark is a personal metaphor for Arker Kyaw, 24.

“People who are trying so hard to get success, it looks like they are struggling in the darkness, but when they make it, it’s like a golden fish coming out of a very dark place, strong and bright,” he explained.

Arker Kyaw studied at the National University of Arts and Culture in Yangon, but found that his skill levels exceeded the first-year curriculum. After facing some personal challenges he dropped out of university and soon found himself couch surfing with his brother and various friends and supporting himself by tattooing and painting Buddha images. He also started spray-painting his creations on buildings and bridges, mainly because he could not afford to buy artists’ canvas and brushes.

“I realised that he was someone who wasn’t going to let things get in his way,” said Ms Gill Pattison, co-owner of the River Gallery, describing her reaction to the “Welcome Obama” mural.  “It really took guts to do that. Then he showed me some of his work, and I realised he wasn’t just a graffiti artist,” she said.

During the past five years, Arker Kyaw’s creations have been displayed at international events, including the New Icon Pop Asia Art Exhibition in Jakarta in 2014, but he still works with spray paint and concrete. As a street artist he has become something of a pop icon in Myanmar.

Yet fame can cut both ways. In a Frontier feature on street art published in February last year, members of Yangon’s graffiti scene grumbled about Arker Kyaw’s arrogance and commercialism, arguing that he dons and doffs the “Night” persona as it suits him.  

Arker Kyaw doesn’t care. His identity as an artist is for others to argue about, he said.

“A wall, a canvas, they’re just media. For one of the paintings in this series I used my fingers,” he said. “I say my art journey is like driving a car. Sometimes I drift, sometimes I drag race, but the main thing is the driving. I just want to drive my art car.”

Pattison said Arker Kyaw’s rejection of artistic pretence, either as a rebel or a traditionalist, is part of what makes him unique and interesting in Myanmar’s re-emerging contemporary art world. 

She said that when Arker Kyaw was in Mandalay painting Buddha images, a Vietnamese company commissioned marble statues for export and wanted them in a non-Myanmar style, which confounded local craftsmen.

Arker Kyaw was the only artist who understood what the Vietnamese wanted and was the only person who could convince the sculptors to experiment with something new, Pattison said.

“He’s the only one whose career has had this trajectory, which was nothing, nothing, nothing and then stardom…He is consumed by art and developing himself as an artist, and he constantly studies and tries new things,” she said.

Arker Kyaw is not sure what direction his “art car” will take him next, only that it will be a new and challenging journey.

“Life is short, so you should do everything,” he said.

(­­At least he can now cross Luckie the fish off his to-do list.)

TOP PHOTO: Steve Tickner | Frontier

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