Journalism project marks rise of emerging cities

Aung Soe Min, a Yangon-based artist and gallery owner, is one subject of a journalism project called Future Cities. (Anna Valmero)

QUITO, Ecuador — The world has heard enough about booming megacities like Shanghai and Mumbai, say a trio of Dutch journalists looking for up-and-coming emerging cities. Their hunches led them to Kinshasa, Lima and Yangon — three examples of cities that are escaping  poverty, armed conflict or political censorship to embrace their grassroots creativity.

Inspired by a McKinsey report on “future cities,” Stephanie Bakker, Yvonne Brandwijk, and Lisette van Rhijn conceived of a multimedia journalism project of the same name. Their work is on display at Quito’s Museo de la Ciudad (Museum of the City) throughout Habitat III.

A Dutch fashion brand known for sourcing African fabrics tipped them off to their first future city: Kinshasa. They quickly discovered their preconceived notions of the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to be totally unfounded. “I thought Kinshasa was all about poverty and war,” Bakker says, “but it appeared that a lot more was going on there.”

What they found was a vibrant fashion scene operating on the margins, with individual proprietors living in slums serving as stylists to the stars of the city’s music and entertainment scene. It was enough to convince them that Kinshasa is the Paris of Africa.

[Read: In Kinshasa, building a fashion industry one stitch at a time]

There is “something common in the DNA” of these cities, according to Bakker. “When the economy grows, something comes up that has been hidden for a long time.”

In Lima, it was food. With the retreat of the Shining Path separatist group’s violent war against the Peruvian government, the city has emerged as a world gastronomy capital. So much so that the many young people don’t strive to become football or soccer players, they grow up wanting to be chefs at one of Lima’s renowned restaurants. Already, a number of successful chefs have established training academies focused on poor neighborhoods.

As part of the multimedia effort, Future Cities brought the protagonists of these cities’ stories to Quito to meet the urbanists assembled for the Habitat III conference.

One of them is Aung Soe Min, a Yangon-based artist and owner of a gallery called Pansodan. Aung has had a lifelong goal of bringing art closer to the people of Myanmar.  “Art can inspire creative solutions for city issues,” he says.

Aung’s work focuses on catalyzing the local art scene by using his gallery to nurture emerging artists. The artists had little chance of displaying their work at traditional galleries; those have long catered chiefly to foreign customers. At the Future Cities exhibit, Aung points to one of Brandwijk’s photos, showing a room filled with his extensive Burmese modern art collection, which could fill several museums.

What made Aung’s story of particular interest to Brandwijk and others on the project team was how he started a movement of enabling art as a catalyst of social inclusion and how it is rebuilding the city’s identity. He established the gallery in 2008, following the Saffron Revolution, when even meeting with a foreigner could be cause for arrest.

“Back in those turbulent times, the gallery was our safe haven to meet friends, scholars and writers,” Aung says. “After that, the community grew and the artists and even foreigners came to discuss and debate ideas.”

Aung’s two-floor gallery has open windows so you can feel the muggy air from outside. That was a deliberate choice, made to set it apart from the air-conditioned galleries that appeal to tourists. “We opened the gallery without air-conditioning to attract the locals to come and see the works of our homegrown artists,” says Aung.

Aung’s gallery has been instrumental in launching the careers of 200 musicians, who now have regular gigs since performing in Open Mic Festivals held at the gallery.  He’s also helped some 400 painters get their start, including one whose work once was ridiculed by critics, but has since found success.  “His work was shown at Art Basel in Miami Beach,” says Aung.

Brandwijk says what’s special about Aung’s work is that it goes beyond the production of art itself—it is about the process of letting creativity flourish and to improve access to different ideas and social commentaries of the times.

“His work is not about how art can elevate a person’s status in society,” she says. “The beauty of his work is giving art to the people and nurturing a sense of togetherness in a community. To me, that answers the question of how art and culture is meaningful to the development of the city.”

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Anna Valmero is a freelance journalist based in Manila.  Full bio
Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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