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Gettin’ Schooled

Most Singaporeans would be familiar with debates on how best to engage with the perpetual rat race, or indeed whether it should be ignored altogether.

In Singapore, parents start planning and volunteering at their choice schools even before their children are born. How do we give our children the best possible education? And will we ever believe that it’s all the same, whether a child attends an elite or ‘neighbourhood’ school?

This is a conversation Myanmar artist Nge Lay hopes to start with her most recent installation, Flying in the Fragmentary. The exhibition is presently open from now to 15 July at Yavuz Gallery in Gillman Barracks.

The artist, pictured with her work

Nge Lay’s work has always explored the subject of Myanmar’s education system. Her previous work, The Sick Classroom (2012 – 2013), was one of the nominees for the Asia-Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize 2014.

Flying in the Fragmentary is a large-scale installation that transforms the Yavuz gallery space into a life-sized Myanmar classroom from Thuye’dan village, a remote area ten hours north of Yangon.

Up in the Air

Before military rule was imposed in 1962, Myanmar’s education system was among the best in Asia. But this changed in the next half-century, as schools received less funding and were starved of resources and teachers post-military coup. Rote learning replaced critical thinking, undermining creativity.

Today, Myanmar is slowly picking up the pieces and trying to work on rebuilding her education system. However, artist Nge Lay still has her doubts about the systemic inequality that has settled in throughout the years.

As we sit on stools in front of her most recent artwork, Nge Lay shares with me how she was fortunate enough to grow up and attend school in Yangon city, as her father was an engineer who could afford to send her to a better school.  Her husband (artist, Aung Ko), however, wasn’t as privileged, and she talks about how he had to fight harder and make more of an effort to study hard in school in order to succeed and move out of the village.

Nge Lay recalls the first time she was introduced to the village school which her husband attended:

“It was really a shock for me.”

Unlike the city school that she had attended, children in the village school studied in shelters which provided scant reprieve from heavy storms or the scorching heat. While the official school syllabus might have been uniform throughout Myanmar, the materials in the village school were basic — textbooks were worn and tattered, and there were no libraries to go to for extra reading.

This difference is reflected in the 30 child-sized mannequins that Nge Lay deliberately suspends from the Yavuz gallery ceiling at various heights, in order to reflect the inequality of Myanmar’s education system:

Installation view of Flying in the Fragmentary (2016-2018). The work is made up of Myanmar student uniforms, rattan, blackboards, schoolbags, textbooks and video.

I notice that the mannequins are faceless.

It’s an intentional act by Nge Lay, who does not want to give each mannequin an identity. The child-like dolls are meant to represent the village school students as a collective, who continue to face this same struggle as long as an unequal education system remains.

For many of these children, going to school is not even a choice. Nge Lay explains:

“Their parents won’t let them go even if they want to, because they need the children to go out and work to earn money for the family.”

Flying in the Fragmentary — yes, the exhibition’s name also carries an innuendo — is an apt representation of how the state of education in Myanmar is currently up in the air, since the country’s military coup of 1962.

To fully realise the benefits of a quality national education system, the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar has committed to implement a new National Education Strategic Plan (NESP) during the period 2016-2021. The NESP is a comprehensive roadmap intended to reform the entire education sector. A key reform focus of the government in the coming years will be the provision of quality, healthy, play-centred pre-school and primary education for all children, including those living in remote rural areas.

While we speak, Nge Lay talks about her feelings towards her government’s plan to reform the country’s education system:

“’s like running a series of laboratory tests. They start something one year, then they stop and start something else the next year. I believe it’s better if they just had one plan. Invest in doing research to come up with a very good education plan. Then keep to that one plan for 10 years, instead of testing out new plans every year.”

Tactile Play  

Textures and materials are imbued with meaning, too, in Nge Lay’s art. The suspended mannequins are made from solid and durable rattan. The wicker material is easily manipulated and shaped, unlike bamboo, but Nge Lay also chooses to use rattan for a more specific reason. She explains:

“Back when I was in school, the rattan cane was a symbol of fear – if you asked questions, or made mistakes, you could be punished by caning or having the stick hit against your table.”

This is a thoughtful moment that brings me back to my own school days. Growing up in Singapore, teachers were never allowed to punish us physically with the cane. But just like Nge Lay, we were never encouraged to speak up and air our opinions. Questions were usually answered with a reprimand or hush. To use rattan as a symbol of fear is a reminder of how powerful the education system is, in its ability to play down personal opinions and propagate government, or mainstream ideas.

On these rattan figures, Nge Lay drapes the actual uniforms of the village school students. Art imitates life here, as the worn clothing is sourced and brought in from Thuye’dan village to recreate the atmosphere of an actual classroom:

A closer look at the school uniforms

Visitors are given pieces of chalk and encouraged to scrawl their responses to the exhibition on chalkboards hung around the wall:

Caged Up

Walking around the main installation of the 30 mannequins, I come to a corner where a lone cage sits. This is where Nge Lay wants you to get touchy —lift the rusty grills and thumb through the tattered pages of the old textbooks that fill this cage:

The pages in these books are filled with scribbles by children who have used the books. Their spidery scrawls tug at your heartstrings as you imagine the physical conditions they have had to endure in order to pursue their studies:

Fittingly, the rusty cage symbolises Nge Lay’s thoughts on Myanmar’s education system. “Sometimes, I feel like it’s a bit of a chicken in a cage,” shares Nge Lay.

One is trapped in the same cycle, unable to speak up. The schoolbags and textbooks in this cage are boxed in, like the students and their voices. She elaborates:

“I feel like when you’re put in these conditions, you have to really want to fight for yourself. Even more so, you have to want to improve. You must want to find a way out.”

Coming from a highly-ranked all-girls school myself, I left this exhibition with mixed feelings. On one hand, I recognise the need to create equal opportunities and access to education. At the same time, I won’t deny that there’s also a part of me that would like to keep my privilege.

Nge Lay believes there isn’t a perfect answer that can solve this conundrum.

Nonetheless, the exhibition hits all the right emotional touchpoints because it makes you question any preconceived notions you might have.

Will the utopian vision of an education system where all schools are made equal, ever work in reality? Should there perhaps continue to be a divide, but with more attention paid to improving lower-tier schools and helping socio-economically disadvantaged students?

These are all questions worth engaging.

And this is why Flying in the Fragmentary is a must-visit.

(All images courtesy of Yavuz Gallery)


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