YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar artist Nyein Chan Su's paintings have a breezy simplicity. Broad, colourful strokes and exaggerated figures, often in silhouette, capture an isolated country steeped in Buddhist culture but blighted by years of military rule.
But selling them has been anything but simple. For two decades, sanctions imposed in response to human rights abuses kept tourism to a trickle, and those who visited found a country run on cash, not credit. Expensive paintings rarely sold. Cheap ones did. That kept a lid on prices.
As Myanmar pursues reforms that may soon convince the United States and Europe to lift sanctions, Nyein Chan Su and other artists hope to emerge from the shadows. Prices, many expect, will rise. International gallery owners from New York to Hong Kong are already scouting for talent.
"Once sanctions come down, we can show our work more and have a chance to earn more money," said Nyein Chan Su, 38, a founding member of Yangon's Studio Square, a cramped gallery shared by four friends from art school on the second floor in the back of an apartment complex in Myanmar's biggest city.
A walk through his studio illustrates the problems. No single piece of art sells for more than $1,000, and most go for about half that, despite a roster of top contemporary artists.
Compare that with Vietnam. Before the United States lifted sanctions in 1994, few Vietnamese paintings sold for more than $1,000. Today, its top artists can fetch 10 times that or more.
Prices have already started to rise for Myanmar's most successful artist, Min Wae Aung, known for expansive canvasses of golden-robed monks, often shaded by pink rattan umbrellas and set against gold backdrops.
"This one is $9,000," said Ma Thit, a manager at New Treasure Art Gallery, pointing to a portrait of four monks walking in sandals. Six years ago, she said, similar Min Wae Aung paintings sold for $6,000. "It goes up every two years or so, and there has been an increase in interest recently."
But Min Wae Aung is the exception in a country where most artists have thrived in obscurity with limited resources, often in fear of state censors rooting out political messages in every song, book, cartoon and piece of art.
He gained prominence in the 1990s with shows in Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries that maintained ties with Myanmar while the West shunned the country following repeated human rights violations, including a 1988 crackdown on pro-democracy protests that killed thousands.
After 1998, when the Singapore Art Museum added his painting "Golden Monks" to its Southeast Asia collection, some U.S. and European galleries began to show his work.
But few artists come anywhere close to Min Wae Aung's stature. At New Treasure, one of Yangon's largest galleries, the average price is just $350 for pieces by other artists, said Ma Thit.
"The tourists only usually bring a little bit of cash, and we only accept cash due to restrictions in using credit due to sanctions, so the price hasn't changed in years for most artists," she said.
She smiles when asked if her prices would rise if sanctions were lifted? "Of course. We are waiting. The artists are waiting."
Before 1993, the country of 60 million people only had two diploma schools of fine arts, one in Yangon and the other in Mandalay. A National University of Arts and Culture was founded in 1993, expanding traditional arts education in the former British colony, also known as Burma.
"We found that there was a huge reservoir of artists, many artists of very good quality," said Sidney Cowell, owner of Asia Fine Art Gallery in Hong Kong. "The work with Myanmar, with Burmese artists is clean, is original and it's untainted. We haven't come across any copying. We haven't come across anything but fine art."
Buddhist themes dominate many works. Tartie, an artist who goes by one name, for instance, depicts murals and stone carvings from pagodas and temples built between the 9th and 13th centuries in the ancient central city of Bagan where Burmese Buddhism first flourished. But he employs a graphic art-style that resembles modern illustration.
"There are two major things that influence my art," he wrote of his work. "One of them is modern art and the other is Myanmar traditional line drawing that has existed throughout the ages. I learned modern art through books and line drawings through mural paintings, lacquer-ware and stone carvings."
Overt political art is rare but that, too, is changing following a series of reforms since last year that ended nearly half-century of direct military rule.
A legislature stacked with former generals has surprised skeptics by loosening its grip on censorship and other social controls. Bans on prominent news web sites have been lifted, including some run by government critics. A law that would do away with direct political censorship is being drafted.
Opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, whose name was seldom spoken in public during her years of house arrest, now regularly appears in public, her face often emblazoned on magazine covers.
"This is an opening, and it's a big opening," said Richard Streiter, founder of ArtAsia NYC, a New York gallery that deals in Burmese art. "The door has swung open that was closed for decades, for many decades."
Streiter, a former dean of the Pratt Institute, a private art college in New York, bought nine paintings of Suu Kyi on his latest visit to Yangon -- and one of her father, assassinated independence hero General Aung San.
"What would have been controversial even only a year ago is no longer problematic," he said.
But some artists such as Nyein Chan Su at Studio Square say it would take time for people to freely express themselves.
"We have been under this system for over 30 years. We don't know whether the government has given us freedom or not. We are still psychologically in this system," he said.
Rather than paint realistic portraits of Myanmar's troubled streets or impoverished countryside, his works "give the taste of escaping from the real outside world", he said.
"There is a deep rooted mindset in the Myanmar people because of the difficult years we have had in our government," he said. "We need to erase this image. The government must change the paradigm and only then will we change."
Editing by Robert Birsel