Artist ‘feels’ the spaces in a treasure of past and future
British artist Kate Bowen has devoted a series of paintings to one of Yangon’s heritage architecture treasures, the former Railways Headquarters Building on the corner of Bogyoke Aung San and Sule Pagoda roads.
Ms Bowen, who has been living in Yangon for nearly two years, became fascinated with the building while sketching scenes of the downtown area from a rooftop overlooking Sule Pagoda Road.
“There was something compelling about it,” she said of the building, that was erected in 1877 and is unique in Yangon for its use of laterite, a soft sandstone that gives the former railways headquarters its distinctive orange hue.
The building will be refurbished and developed into a five-star hotel as part of the US$400-million Landmark project by Singapore-listed Yoma Strategic Holdings to redevelop a 10-acre site facing Bogyoke Aung San Road.
By coincidence, Ms Bowen met one of the engineers involved in the project to restore the building’s graceful façade. He helped to arrange for her to work inside the building.
“At the beginning I did not realize I was going to spend so much time in there,” Ms Bowen said. “I thought I would move on to another building after one or two pictures,” she said.
“But as soon as I got into the building, it had a mood in it that I wanted to track, getting under the superficial of the surface. Feel the empty spaces. “
It took fourteen months to complete her series of paintings. They contain soft but brightly-coloured scenes that seem to exist in a forgotten time.
The paintings evoke feelings of wandering the building’s long, ageing corri-
dors, their cracked wooden floors aching with gaps. The floor acts as a canvas for shadows to play on and the paintings are redolent of a slow, quiet melancholy of times past.
Ms Bowen’s creations powerfully capture this atmosphere. One of her simplest works, of a hallway surrendering itself to darkness, captures the building’s essence, beyond the superficiality of its façade.
Ms Bowen has been pleasantly surprised by the response from many Myanmar people to paintings of a building that is a legacy of British colonialism. Many Myanmar had thanked her for the paintings of what they called “our Burmese culture”.
Ms Bowen said their praise had helped her to appreciate how important to the people of Myanmar are the nation’s architectural treasures, whatever their origin.
“The cost of doing this conversion is unbelievable,” she said, of the painstaking and sensitive work being undertaken to convert the building into a high-end hotel.
“If they wouldn’t do it, give the building a year and it would fall apart,” she said.
Artist Kate Bowen, right. Photo: Kate Bowen/Facebook