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  • Jan 11, 2017

Performance Artist Aye Ko Honored with 2017 Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art

The 2017 Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art was given to AYE KO in January. Present at the ceremony was (left to right) Zoe Butt, Ute Meta Bauer, Kirk Wagar, Arahmaiani, Chaw Ei Thein, Aye Ko, Anita Kapoor, Lorenzo Rudolf and Enin Supriyanto. Photo by Sylvia Tsai for ArtAsiaPacific.

On the evening of January 10, the United States Embassy in Singapore and Art Stage Singapore presented the 2017 Joseph Balestier Award for the Freedom of Art to veteran performance artist Aye Ko from Myanmar. He was honored with a cash prize of USD 15,000 by Kirk Wagar, US Ambassador to Singapore, and Lorenzo Rudolf, Art Stage Singapore founder and president. The artist has been a nominee for the award every year since its inception in 2015. The two other finalists included Arahmaiani from Indonesia and Chaw Ei Thein, also from Myanmar.

Named after Joseph Balestier (1788–1858), the first American diplomat and US consul to Singapore, the award recognizes “an artist or curator from Southeast Asia who is actively committed to the ideals of liberty and freedom of expression, and through his or her work, continually seeks to express these ideals.”

“This award is really important, especially for my country Myanmar, given the political situation it has been under for a long time. I want to share the prize in order to build up even more democracy,” expressed Aye Ko upon receiving the award, which was hosted at the residence of the US Ambassador. Aye Ko announced that the prize money will go toward art education programs for children, organized under his nonprofit New Zero Art Space, which he established in Yangon in 2008.

Aye Ko began his career as a impressionistic painter. It was only after his three-year sentence in jail (1990–93), where he was held as a political prisoner, that he turned to performance art, seeing it simultaneously as a more direct way to connect with his audience, and an ephemeral means of commenting on his country's socio-political situation. His provocative performances have been shown in festivals both regionally and internationally over the past two decades.

The three finalists were nominated by a jury comprising Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore; Zoe Butt, former executive director and curator at Sàn Art in Ho Chi Minh City; and Enin Supriyanto, independent art curator and writer from Indonesia. Speaking about the judging criteria, Ute Meta Bauer explained: “We look at artists who through their art achieves an artistic language that creates awareness. Each of these artists have already done so much in their respective situations.”

Bauer added, “Aye Ko's commitment to his community is brought forth through his work, which has said that though things may change today, an awareness has to go on. In his practice, he not only models his skills as an artist but also the attitude of an artist, which is passed down to new generations. This is very crucial, especially in a city such as Yangon, which is changing so quickly. It is important for the younger generation, in order to understand the transformation, to understand the political setting of only a few years ago. The country needs this cross-generational communication.”

The award ceremony was also bittersweet for US Ambassador Kirk Wagar, who has only nine days left in his post. Reflecting on the awards, which he jointly inaugurated three years ago, Wagar said, “This [the awards] is one of the things that Crystal and I are most proud to have been associated with. The courage of these artists tends to be what we speak about in terms of the Balestier awards, but what tends to be lost is an aesthetic that must be established in order to be in this pool. These are all tremendous artists in their own right and if we hear nothing of their personal stories, no one will be shocked to learn that they won any type of award. When you then hear the context in which they have operated in, it's even more humbling.”

Sylvia Tsai is associate editor at ArtAsiaPacific.

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