U Soe win

U Soe Win at Borderline in November 2019


U Soe Win was born in Mawlamyine on November 2, 1954 and he has always lived and worked in the city in Mon State. The eldest of 9 children, he was asked to join his father in their gold shop at the young age of 15. At that time, he was in grade 9 trying to pass for the second time.

Education in Burma was already deteriorating and the prospect for further study almost nonexistent. Besides, U Soe Win regularly got beaten by his teachers for drawing during class proving that education not necessarily trains you for your future life.

In the family business, U Soe Win learned how to make jewelry, using golden ornaments, necklaces, rings and bracelets as raw material. In many countries where banks are not accessible for many people, gold is the way to store money. This results in people having all kinds of jewelry that can be turned into money when needed. In a sense the family business was banking.

While the gold business provided the income to support the family, U Soe Win also wanted to continue his art and he opened a Gallery next door. Besides exhibiting paintings the Gallery was also used as a workshop. In the decades before printing machines and shops, people used artists to make copies and enlargements of photos. Signboards and event posters could be ordered.

For a while U Soe Win worked with two men who would make the signboards and posters for cinemas, concerts and events like boxing matches. Until now he regards them as his first teachers. The amount of work, variety of topics and the speed in which work needed to be finished have all added to his skills. This apprenticeship is not different from how the old Dutch and Italian masters worked.

To learn he would also make trips to Yangon where he could stay for 4 or 5 days to work with an artist and learn from him by looking as he worked. The teachers didn’t want money but it was expected of an apprentice to run errands and help clean the studio or prepare a meal. Nowadays this wouldn’t work as teachers expect an hourly rate.

In the Gallery U Soe Win has had his own share of students who would learn from him the skills he had developed listening to and looking at others.

Around age 40, U Soe Win parted with both gold shop and Gallery and focused solely on his art. He would still do signboards and other requests and relied on his children and savings and the occasional sale of a painting.

In 2008, U Soe Win visited Mae Sot and joined the Borderline Collective. Since then he has had several solo shows. He also repainted the outside wall in 2015 or 2016.

What motivates him

“Light and Dark” was the short answer, and then how the light makes a scene happy. Whatever is shown in his paintings, U Soe Win wants the viewer to see something happy and nothing sad. And if somebody doesn’t like what he sees, too bad, he won’t change.

When he sees a topic that would suit his paintings he might wait for the right light to fall on an object so as to make the painting more beautiful.

Besides landscapes, he likes to paint faces of people with stories painted all over their face. While he has never been in Naga Land, he has a vast collection of Naga people with their colourful headdresses and weather beaten faces. Chin women with the tattooed faces, ethnic mothers with their little children, they all decorate his canvasses.

Now there are no teachers who beat him for painting and he has the freedom to pick subjects and places to show his art.

Mae Sot, November 07, 2019

“A personal view on U Soe Win”

 I first encountered U Soe Win during a rare instance when we would both visit Mae Sot at the same time. Looking at the artwork he had brought, my first impression was that he had made the art a decade ago and was hoping to find a customer in Mae Sot. Over the years both style and topic on U Soe Win’s canvases have stayed consistent with only the indication of the year changing. His work has always been recent.

And now his work always feels familiar, recognisable. With U Soe Win you don’t expect to see a new style, a deviation of reality. You see what you get, you get what you see. And what you see is a glimpse of Burma we often overlook when focusing on the politics.

U Soe Win himself has stated that he will wait for the light to make a sight more beautiful as he wants the viewer to leave with a happy thought. This doesn’t mean he denies what is happening in his country, he merely nudge us to also look to the beauty that is also on offer.

U Soe Win also shows us how we can travel without leaving our seats. Without ever having visited Naga Land he has used Naga faces to cover canvasses, next to Chin Ladies or Shan people. And often these portraits are huge. Entering the gallery these weather beaten faces stare at you and you can only take a little bow in respect. Each line is like a ring in a tree, a year full of hardship and joy.

Life in the hills of Naga Land, Chin State or Shan state is harsh, even without military repression. Like everywhere on our planet, people know how to lessen the hardships with cultural expression during one of the many festivals taking place in between planting and harvest seasons.

The respect U Soe Win has for those he depicts is clear from the place they take in his catalogue. At Borderline we are privileged to host his artwork for months and even years. On the occasion a Naga man has found a new home, I feel a little sadness as I came to expect to see the face entering the store room.

In 2015 we decided that the wall painting at Borderline needed a fresh coat. As we didn’t want to loose the original design by Nyan Soe, we aksed U Soe Win to come to Mae Sot and refresh the wall. He kept the original design and added some modern touches, perhaps a little hint that he still has a few cards up his sleeve.

On the walls of my house are over a dozen artworks of Borderline artists including one portrait by U Soe Win. This time it is not a Chin lady, Shan couple or Naga man but a Dutch cyclist who feels very honoured.

Ton Baars Mae Sot, May 7, 2023

Fact File

Began Painting1962Mawlamyine
OccupationArtistArt Teacher
Favourite MediumAcrylic on paperWatercolour


November 05, 2009Pieces of BurmaBorderline GallerySolo
April 2, 2010GlimpsesBorderline GallerySolo
February 18, 2011The Golden LightBorderline GallerySolo
February 2, 2012Innocent ArtBorderline GalleryMembers of Borderline Collective
December 4, 2012Silent CircleBorderline GallerySolo Show
August 7. 2014Two pointsBorderline Gallerywith John Khai
February 5, 2015DesireBorderline GallerySolo Show
April 7, 2016Dousing the HeatBorderline GallerySolo Show
November 7, 2019Shwe MyanmarBorderline GallerySolo Show
May 11, 2023Myanmar Still LifeBorderline GallerySolo Show
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