Yantra: The Sacred Ink – Project history

My first encounter with the world of sak yant (yantra tattooing) was at the famed Wat Bang Phra temple in Nakorn Chaisi on the day of its Wai Khru ceremony. This was back in 2003, early on during my stint in Thailand,  covering the event for a magazine feature; not knowing then, that I would later go much deeper and embark on one of the most ambitious projects of my career, “Yantra: The Sacred Ink”.

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From the series “Yantra: The Sacred Ink” Untitled 1: 40×40″ Edition of 10

Over the years, I grew more intrigued by local beliefs in magic and how widespread, across all social divides, superstition was in the south east Asian region. I wanted to work on a personal project to explore this and discover how local spiritual traditions often incorporate magic and superstitions. In Thailand, I was particularly curious about people’s need to seek “protection” from bad luck, evil spirits and danger by using sacred and “magic” text, or “Yantra”.

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The “wai khru” day (literally honor the teacher ceremony or master day). On this auspicious day, believers come to show respect to both living and dead tattoo masters. Held once a year in March 50 km west of Bangkok in Nakon Chaisi, Wat Bang Phra Temple’s ceremony is quite a spectacle and the place to witness “Khong Khuen” (animal Spirit possession), when tattooed men are “possessed” by the spirit of their tattoos.

Yantra is often written on cloth, used to bless cars, homes and businesses. But it also adorns the human body in the shape of spiritual tattoos known as Sak Yant (Yantra tattoos). It is an age old tradition, with historical records as old as 200 BC, from the Chinese Qin Dynasty depicting tattooed men in the region. The spiritual Yantra or Sak Yant tattoo tradition (Sak means to tap, whilst yant is derived from the Sanskrit word yantra, meaning scared geometrical design), is practiced across southeast Asian countries, including Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. The complex spiritual landscape in the region incorporates elements of Buddhist, Brahman, Hindu and Animist traditions.

The first portrait session happened by chance when, on assignment, I met a shipyard worker, inked head to toe with script and magic spells, and arranged to return the following week with a 6×6 medium format camera.

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Two images from the first roll of that session with the shipyard worker. Shot in 2008 – (40×40″ – editions of 10)

I was later introduced to tattoo masters who eventually allowed me to witness and photograph countless ceremonies, blessings and tattooing sessions.

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L: A tattoo master at work in Bangkok R: A child blessing at a Bangkok tattoo master’s “samnak” (studio)

I then began seeking out sitters all over Thailand to photograph them for the large format portrait series featured in ‘Yantra: The Sacred Ink’.

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L: Portrait 6, Muay Thai boxer, Bangkok R: Portrait 13, Monk, Ayuthaya Province 30×40″ – editions of 10

Shot on a 4×5” camera the series of black-and-white portraits – the negatives of which are chemically altered by brushing various chemicals onto the emulsion, depict men from all walks of life and all ages, proudly showing the inked protection on their bodies.

The ‘Yantra: The Sacred Ink’ project was officially first launched on May 25th 2011, with a major exhibition at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University Art center, featuring 56 black & white prints, a multimedia display with images and sound as well as antique Yantra shirts (historically used by Thai soldiers for protection in battle) loaned by the Museum Siam.

Extract from the short film “Yantra: The Sacred Ink’ – Currently on show at musée du quai Branly in Paris, (May 2014 – October 2015) and on show at Tropen museum in Amsterdam from March 20th to August 20th 2015

Selected Exhibitions:

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Tatoueurs, tatoués, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. May 6th 2014 – Oct 15th 2015

Body Art, Tropen Museum, Amsterdam – March 20th – August 20th 2015

‘Yantra: The Sacred ink’ Galerie Olivier Waltman, Paris – May-Jun 2014

‘Yantra’ – Galerie Olivier Waltman, London Art Fair, Jan 2014

Festival Photo Saint-Germain-des-Prés Galerie Olivier Waltman, Paris – Nov 2013

ASEAN (‘Sacred Ink’) – Le Magasin de Jouets, Arles – July – Sept 2013

‘Sacred Ink’ – SNAP Photo Festival, Orlando – May 2013

‘Sacred Ink’ – Nov 2012 – Jan 2013 – Farmani Gallery – Bangkok

‘Sacred Ink, The Tattoo Master’ Oct – Dec 2012 Brunei Gallery London – SOAS

‘Sacred Ink’ May 2011 Chulalongkorn University Art Centre – Bangkok

For more info and photographs of the exhibitions, click here

Selected Print publications

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“Tattoo” – Actes Sud / Musée du quai Branly

“Encre Sacrée” – Geo Magazine, France

“L’art dans la peau” – Le Monde Magazine, France

“Carving Spirituality” – Picture Power, Newsweek Japan

“Grand designs” – Spectrum – The Sunday Times Magazine 

“Yantra: The Sacred Ink” – January Art Magazine, Australia

Yantra: The Sacred Ink” – The Trip Magazine – Italy

“Yantra: The Sacred Ink” Hey! Modern Art and Pop Culture – France

More publications

Online features, interviews & profiles:

Slate Magazine
France Fine Art
Arts hebdo
Boat Magazine
Die Nacht
Wayne Ford
Newsweek / Daily Beast
Lomography
Lens Culture
Actu Photo
Artsper
Vogue.fr
Jetez L’encre
Ein Dutzend
Sport et Style
Artslandstreet
Art Market Review

Excerpts from reviews

” There’s a certain unnerving juxtaposition about Cedric Arnold’s photography. There is an obvious potency, or aggression – men standing in various stages of undress, stoic, staring, unblinking; yet there is a reverence or calm that provides depth and intrigue.” – January Art Magazine

“Arnold’s powerful, yet sensitive portraits present a mystical subculture through its rituals, and symbols; a chest etched with a fierce leaping tiger, a hand adorned with images of geckos on each finger, a back protected by a monkey God, or a shoulder inscribed with ancient Khmer text…” – Wayne Ford

Gallery representation / Paris

Olivier Waltman

Man and Cameraman – Shaw & Photography

“I would willingly exchange every single painting of Christ for one snapshot.” – George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

The Irish Playwright, literary critic and essayist was an avid amateur photographer, taking and collecting around 20,000 images between the 1870s to 1950. Shaw began his love affair with photography in 1898 when he bought his first camera, a simple box camera. He continued taking photographs until his death in 1950, using a variety of cameras. Before he began taking pictures himself, Shaw had already been an advocate of photography as an art form, writing on the subject and reviewing photographic exhibitions.

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An experimental self-portrait where only part of the negative has been developed, circa 1890s. GB Shaw/ Reproduced by kind permission of the Society of Authors, the National Trust and the London School of Economics.

“I always wanted to draw and paint. I had no literary ambition: I aspired to be a Michael Angelo, not a Shakespeare. But I could not draw well enough to satisfy myself; and the instruction I could get was worse than useless. So when dry plates and push buttons came into the market I bought a box camera and began pushing the button.”

Shaw’s collection, which the National Trust handed to the London School of Economics in 1979, gives a fascinating insight into literary, artistic and political life during Shaw’s lifetime. It also features images taken by his friend TE Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia – during the Arab Revolt.  A conservation and digitization project was launched in 2010 at LSE the school he was a co-founder of.

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George Bernard Shaw in the Pose of The Thinker, 1906, Carbon print on platinotype, H. 29.2 cm ; W. 23 cm – Inscribed in pencil, lower right : “To M. Auguste Rodin from Alvin Langdon Coburn September 15th 1906″ collection of the Musee Rodin

On the above photograph he declared: “I’ve posed nude for a photographer in the manner of Rodin’s Thinker, but I merely looked constipated.”

His enthusiasm for photography, the human form and the accuracy of reproduction that the medium allowed is perhaps a reference to the original story of Pygmalion, and the idea of bringing artwork to life, or at least representing the human form as accurately as possible.  He certainly saw photography as the perfect opportunity to explore a more accurate representation of the human form, and commented on this several times.

As a reply to press comments on his posing in the nude for “Le Penseur”, “The Thinker” (above) he went on to say: “Though we have hundreds of photographs of [Charles] Dickens and [Richard] Wagner, we see nothing of them except the suits of clothes with their heads sticking out; and what is the use of that?” Though throughout the years Shaw photographed countless luminaries of his time, I found his self-portraits particularly interesting, ranging from the serious to the playful, audacious and experimental… From self portraits showing the intense eyes of a drama writer in classic poses, to more adventurous lighting as well as playful images using mirrors both nude and clothed, Shaw certainly went beyond the norms of early photography.

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Self-portrait of Shaw looking straight to camera, circa 1908
GB Shaw/LSE. Collection of the National Trust

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Nude self Portrait – Shaw is seen here smoking and reading a book.
GB Shaw/LSE. Reproduced by kind permission of the Society of Authors, the National Trust and the London School of Economics.

On photography and nudity Shaw said:

“The camera can represent flesh so superbly that, if I dared, I would never photograph a figure without asking that figure to take its clothes off”

Nude self-portrait, setting up a camera George Bernard Shaw c. 1910

Nude self-portrait, setting up a camera George Bernard Shaw c. 1910 – Via – IMMA, Irish Museum of Modern Art

Shaw was also an early critic of image manipulation. “Technically good negatives are more often the result of the survival of the fittest than of special creation or “retouching” which can only be compared to the pipes and moustaches with which portraits of the sovereigns of England get decorated. [manipulated/retouched images] ought…to be excluded from a photographic exhibition, on the simple grounds that it is not photography.” From Shaw’s article for an exhibition by his friend Alvin Coburn (1906).

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Self-portrait taken in 1919 .
GB Shaw/LSE. Reproduced by kind permission of the Society of Authors, the National Trust and the London School of Economics.

 

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A self-portrait taken by George Bernard Shaw shows him experimenting with light, simulating a fire. Bernard Shaw Estate/ Reproduced by kind permission of the Society of Authors, the National Trust and the London School of Economics.

 

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c1907: Self portrait, Shaw is standing with both knees bent outwards on the interior side of a window sill; he is leaning forwards supporting himself with his arm to look out of the window to the left whilst resting his other arm on his knee – GB Shaw / Reproduced by kind permission of the Society of Authors, the National Trust and the London School of Economics.

 

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c1898-1899 : Self portrait. Shaw is standing leaning on a mantelpiece facing a mirror with his other arm to his hip and leg crossed, this gives the impression of a double portrait as his face is visible in the mirror reflection.
GB Shaw/LSE. Reproduced by kind permission of the Society of Authors, the National Trust and the London School of Economics.

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Handprint GB Shaw – c 1920 – Via IMMA Irish Museum of Modern Art

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GB Shaw self portrait with his wife Charlotte – Reproduced by kind permission of the Society of Authors, the National Trust and the London School of Economics.

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Interior beside Sigismund de Strobl bust, shaking head
George Bernard Shaw – Reproduced by kind permission of the Society of Authors, the National Trust and the London School of Economics.

 

Self-Portrait (young man) in chair George Bernard Shaw -  c 1904

Self-Portrait (young man) in chair
George Bernard Shaw – c 1904 – Reproduced by kind permission of the Society of Authors, the National Trust and the London School of Economics.

“You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.” – George Bernard Shaw -

Short Film – Yantra: The Sacred Ink

Now available to view on Vimeo –  This short – 4:34 minute cut of the film Yantra: The Sacred Ink uses footage shot between 2008 and 2014, it shows the tattooing process and ceremonies attached to the tradition, as well as the state of trance, or “Khong Khuen” (animal Spirit possession), tattooed devotees enter when “possessed” by the spirit of their tattoos.

The full version of the film will be released at a later date. For more info on the photographic project Yantra: The Sacred Ink, as well as exhibitions please visit this page: cedricarnold.com/portfolio/photographs/yantra-the-sacred-ink/

Francis Bacon & Photography

A Peter Stark portrait of Francis Bacon taken in the 70ies, and found in the painter’s London Studio. Collection Hugh Lane Gallery © The Estate of Francis Bacon.

During a  visit to Ireland a few years ago, I went to an exhibition on Francis Bacon and the fascinating contents of his chaotic London studio. After the painter’s death, everything in his famed 7 Reece Mews studio was left untouched for years and eventually all donated to Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery. Paint brushes, canvases, documents, photographs, were all carefully cataloged and moved to Dublin for the eventual reconstruction of the space in Dublin. And the Hugh Lane really did put together something special, I imagined it would be his studio space with the original contents and a few supporting documents, but with all that was made accessible, it turned out to be one of the best exhibits I’ve been to in a long time.

The 7 Reece Mews Studio

L: Bacon in his studio – R: Studio detail showing a portrait of Bacon and an image of Mohamed Ali

Thousands of photographic prints, magazine reproductions, scientific manuals, were found littered around his London studio, ranging from images of Mohamed Ali & Marylyn Monroe, to studies of human and animal movement, war imagery, and reproductions of work by classic painters such as Velasquez and Rembrandt. Most of the images were creased, crumpled even torn and paint stained. I knew Bacon had used some photography as inspiration, but had no idea it was to that extent… A vast database of all these pictures was accessible via touch screens on the gallery’s walls, including information on how they influenced his work, a unique insight into Bacon’s approach to painting, a man who was never filmed or closely watched while painting. The database featured images that influenced his paintings, passport pictures, even holiday snaps, and countless portraits of himself by famed photographers such as Henri Cartier Bresson, all paint stained and creased, sometimes torn, and put back together… Discovering this side of Bacon was like discovering a new artist, I stayed there for ages searching through all the documents available, fascinating.

Eadweard Muybridge’s work (above), heavily influenced the way Bacon expressed the human body’s movements.  The pioneering photographer developed a multiple camera system in the 1870s to record movement sequences first of animals and humans.   A whole room full of paint stained, torn and crumpled reproductions of Muybridge’s work, originally found in Bacon’s London studio was on display at the gallery. Bacon would often go to the Victoria & Albert museum, just round the corner form his studio, where all the original plates were kept, he later acquired reproductions and used them extensively for core elements of his paintings.

L: Bacon’s “Two Figures” – R: Muybridge reproductions found in Bacon’s studio.

Bacon on Muybridge “Michelangelo and Muybridge are mixed up in my mind together, and so I perhaps could learn about positions from Muybridge and learn about the ampleness, the grandeur of form from Michelangelo. …

Bacon also used a still image from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin as an influence for his Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X 1953 (bellow)

L: a still image from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. R: Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X 1953

Photography played a major role in Bacon’s work. Many of the photographs found in the studio were of Bacon, his friends and various other subjects. During his lifetime, Bacon accepted only a handful of commissions. From the early 1960s he chose his closest friends as sitters, preferring to work not from life but from their photographs.

He grew up in the age of photo documentary, with then new magazines such as Life in the US and Picture Post in the UK giving him a wealth of imagery which could often filter into his paintings through his unique and seemingly random or even careless treatment of photographs. But on closer inspection it soon becomes apparent that he would often engage in a complex form of pre-painting groundwork with the images that could be described as an art form in its own right. Creases, folds, tears and paint stains on photographs often appear to be Bacon’s own form of sketching.

Early on, he would collect all images that he thought he could use and alter for paintings. But he became more discerning and began commissioning photographers for much more specific projects. Vogue photographer John Deakin worked with Bacon and photographed the painter’s friends and his partner George Dyer. Bacon would later go on to use a Deakin image of Dyer (his now dead partner) as a reference for a portrait of his then partner John Edwards (bellow)

When interviewed, Francis Bacon often talked about his own spontaneity in painting , about how he never sketched before painting or drew outlines on canvases. The discoveries in 7 Reece Mews shed light on how he actually worked his way towards a finished painting. For all his brilliant legacy of portraits, he only ever painted four sitters from life the rest from photographs, this allowed him the space and time for behind the scenes planning with the aid of photographs. I found the damaged, creased, torn and paint stained photographic portraits really powerful and inspiring.

An exhibition in London in 2010 called “In Camera” featured many of the originals, and a fascinating book of the same name has since been published.

The Photographer’s Gallery in London dedicated an exhibition earlier this year to John Deakin’s photographs of Soho. The show, entitled ‘Under the Influence’ (John Deakin and the lure of Soho) featured a photograph of a woman captioned “party goer” – The Guardian newspaper recently revealed in their article “CIA facial software uncovers the artist Francis Bacon – In drag”   The resemblance is uncanny but there remains the issue of cleavage…

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“Unknown woman, 1930s” by John Deakin

“One question still remains. While the face is very much like Bacon’s and the mole on the model’s chest closely matches that which can be seen in the famous picture of Bacon holding two sides of meat, it is impossible to ignore the substantial cleavage.”

Bacon Vogue 1952 by John Deakin

Francis Bacon, 1952, by John Deakin. Photograph: John Deakin/Vogue

Quai Branly – Tatoueurs, tatoués exibition

Paris’ Musée du quai Branly launched its Tatoueurs, tatoués exhibition last week. The biggest of its kind, the 18 month long exhibition features photographs, films, original tattoo artwork on synthetic silicone skins and antique objects from all over the world illustrating the art of tattooing from its very origins and oldest traditions to modern practice.

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Visitors at the Thai section of the exhibition which features my short film Yantra: The Sacred Ink and 4 prints from the series of the same name.

The museum, along with the flamboyant curators Anne et Julien, the people behind art and pop culture magazine Hey! enlisted the help of anthropologists, historians and modern tattoo artists to source an impressive, comprehensive and fascinating collection.

Here are some of my favorites from the exhibition

L: Maras portrait, 2006 © Serie Maras, 2006. Isabel Muñoz. R: Traditional Japanese tattoo © Photo: Tatttooinjapan.com / Martin Hladik.

L: Maras portrait, 2006 © Serie Maras, 2006. Isabel Muñoz. R: Traditional Japanese tattoo © Photo: Tatttooinjapan.com / Martin Hladik.

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Portrait of an Algerian woman, Algeria, 1960. © Marc Garanger, artist’s private collection.

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Tryptic of Japanse prints: the dual. The prints represent two Kabuki theatre actors in a dual against a winter backdrop. Realised by Toyohara Kunichika (1835-1900). The actor on the right is Ichikawa Danjurô, in the rôle of Kumonryû Shishin, a mythical figure tattooed with nine dragons. The actor on the right is Ichikawa Sadanji in the role Kaoshyôrochishin, covered in a Kaidô flower tattoo representing the family of roses. Edo and beginning of Meiji periods, year 18 of the Meiji era, Japan © Musée du quai Branly, photo: Claude Germain.

Women wearing tattoos and costumes. Photographer: anonymous. © CORBIS  Bettmann.

Women wearing tattoos and costumes. Photographer: anonymous. © CORBIS Bettmann.

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Images from the ‘Recueil Lacassagne’, 1920-1940 © Gdalessandro/ENSP.

L: Captain Costentenus tatooed by order of Yakoob-Beg, 19th century © Fonds Dutailly, Ville de Chaumont. R: Traditional Japanese tattoo © Photo: Tatttooinjapan.com / Martin Hladik.

L: Captain Costentenus tatooed by order of Yakoob-Beg, 19th century © Fonds Dutailly, Ville de Chaumont. R: Traditional Japanese tattoo © Photo: Tatttooinjapan.com / Martin Hladik.

The exhibition's catalogue, published both in English and French is a beautiful 300 page hard cover volume. I am very proud to have my image on the cover.

The exhibition’s catalogue, published both in English and French is a beautiful 300 page hard cover volume. I am very proud to have my image on the cover.

‘Yantra: The Sacred Ink’ Teaser

Yantra – Short film

The teaser for ‘Yantra: The Sacred Ink’, to be premiered at Musée du quai Branly’s TATOUEURS, TATOUÉS exhibition on May 6th is live on Vimeo.

Tatoueurs, tatoués catalogue

I am happy to announce that my portrait of a muay Thai fighter has been chosen for the cover of the Tatoueurs, tatoués exhibition catalogue at Paris’ musée du quai Branly.

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Tatoueurs, tatoués exhibition catalogue cover. Picture © Cedric Arnold

Published by Actes Sud in Arles, the 300 page hard cover book features selected works from the exhibition and details the history and practice of tattooing from around the world.  Available in May at the museum’s book shop all good art book stores in Paris and France; the catalogue also has an English version.

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Tony Benn

Sad to hear the news about Tony Benn. Obituaries are filling the British press today. I had the opportunity to photograph the great man early on in my career in 1999 in London. It was one of my first big one on one portrait sessions. He readied himself for the camera with his usual face-on, pipe puffing pose. When I suggested a profile shot, he arched an eyebrow and quipped:  “I’ll look like a coin”. May he rest in peace.

London, 1999 © Cedric Arnold

Here’s his wonderful quote on photography

“Most things in life are moments of pleasure and a lifetime of
embarrassment; photography is a moment of embarrassment and
a lifetime of pleasure.” -Tony Benn-

 

Old film stills from Myanmar

A few years ago, while on assignment in Yangon, I came across a small antique / curiosity / junk shop in the old city center.  I searched through boxes of old photographs and eventually found a pile of old movie stills, many stamped with “British, Burma Film co., ltd – Rangoon” a film production and distribution company established in the 1930’s. While many of the images were stamped, none were dated, making identification quite challenging. Some do have notes on the back, so I will post an update once contacts and friends in Yangon help me gather more info.

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A movie still from what was then known as a “stunt film”

The first film produced in Myanmar was a 1920 silent film called “Myitta nit athuyar,” (Love And Liquor) a tale of  gambling, alcohol and destruction. Later on in the 1930s the British began to censor films with such themes.

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“But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?” The classic balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, with a Burmese twist on the wardrobe and probably on the dialogue too. This is one stamped with the British Burma Film co seal, and judging by the decor, most probably a stage production. In 1941 the Japanese bombed most of the movie theaters, during occupation no films were produced, film companies and actors turned to stage productions. Due to the impossibility of acquiring film, an attempt to save precious film stock was made by burying it; but the high temperatures caused the film to deteriorate.

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The “British Burma Film co” seal on the back of one of the prints.

In 1946 film production kick started again but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that much needed extra film stock, new equipment and technical expertise were brought in by reps from international studios such as Universal Studios. The 1950’s were considered to be Myanmar’s cinematic golden years with state of the art studios such as the A1 studios attracting productions from Neighboring Thailand and even the then President U Nu getting involved in script writing in 1953.

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An archer in a scene that could also be a local take on the story of Ekalavya

With the formation of the Revolutionary Council in 1962, things began to change for the local film industry. Although, according to the LA Times , “Censors could be influenced with tea money – and the industry remained relatively vibrant until the mid-1970s.” after the socialist regime’s “reformation” officials insisted that all films should promote the socialist agenda. This obviously hugely restricted the themes filmmakers could tackle.

Absurd decrees such as the 1982 decision stating that actors must make three movies simultaneously further damaged the already chocking industry. After the pro-democracy protests of 1988 which saw many actors and directors take part, the government would regularly ban films because of actor choices and film score choices. To avoid the need for script approval, filmmakers started shooting direct-to-CD and later direct-to-DVD releases.

This along with the growing popularity of pirated foreign films further sealed the fate of the industry and created a huge decline in Cinema goers. Land prices soaring to incredible heights have predictably caused old “standalone” cinemas to be destroyed or targeted for destruction to make way for hastily built business towers. By 2011 cinema numbers nationwide had declined to  71 from their peak of 244, several more have since been destroyed in what is known as “Cinema Row” in Yangon.

The film industry today focuses mainly on TV productions with very rare cinema releases. However, initiatives such as the Yangon Film School and various organizations helping with media and art development, will hopefully help Burmese cinema to grow again.

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Many photographs from the collection feature this type of “almost kiss” in varying stages of closeness, but never quite a Hollywood style embrace.

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A little closer…

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A countryside scene

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The shop owner told me she was very famous, but could not give me a name… Eye lashes and hair point to the 1960’s, possibly Khin Than Nu.

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A confusion of facial expressions in what looks like a countryside scene.

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Two actor portraits

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A family scene, no clues given on this one, but it looks like it’s from the 1950s

Further reading:

A fascinating website documenting the traditional standalone movie theaters in SE Asia including Myanmar:

http://seatheater.blogspot.com/search/label/Myanmar%20-%20Yangon%20Division

On Burmese cinema history:

http://jessicamudditt.com/tag/history-of-burmese-cinema/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinema_of_Burma