Out In The Open

Out in the Open: Gavin Aung Than of ZenPencils

           Gavin Aung Than spent eight years working in the corporate graphic design industry before doing something that not a lot of people have the courage to do. He quit.
           He then pursued his true passion of drawing cartoons. Today he has two books of inspirational cartoons published and is one of the few Burmese people in the world making ripples in the world of comics. We are honored to kick off our Out in the Open Interview series with a man who is as inspiration as a person as he strives to accomplish with his work.
For more of his work visit ZEN Pencils 


Gavin Aung Than: artist and author of ZEN Pencils


Since Out in the Open is focusing on the stories of Burmese diaspora and exploring what it means to be Burmese apart from the conservative narrative. The first most logical question has to be, who are you? What do you identify as and how is that important to your work?
I’m a cartoonist born and raised in Australia, currently living in Melbourne but grew up in the smaller city of Perth. Both of my parents are Burmese and migrated to Australia in the 70s. I identify myself as Australian, but in truth, I don’t really place much importance on national identity. I don’t think my Australian or Burmese roots influence my work that much – if anything my work is more influenced by all the American culture I consumed as a kid.
What was your experience with Burmese culture and identity in Perth?
Like most cultures, the most memorable part is the food! Burmese food played a large part of my upbringing and both my parents taught me to cook. I very much enjoy cooking Burmese food, especially since I’ve moved away from home. There is quite a large Burmese population in Perth and I have a huge extended family there – we all grew up seeing each other and developed a strong sense of family and community. My parents are both catholic so I didn’t grow up with the Buddhist influence. But overall, yes, I knew that my heritage was a lot different to most other Australians and I was proud of being the Burmese kid at school.
As an artist do you find that identity or the self, plays a large role in the act of creating? Where do your draw inspiration from?
I think it does but it’s something that develops over time. Initially, most artists start off just imitating their heroes but eventually a personal style and your own identity slowly shows through. We all are just a bundle of memories and experiences that we draw upon to create. My inspiration can come from anywhere – mainly it comes from the culture I consume – movies, comics, books, but it can be anything – the real world, travel or just pure imagination.
In terms of defying the stereotypes and expectations of what people expect of you because of your identity. Do you think as an artist, and as well as a person, you redefine what it means to be Burmese?
Well, to be honest, I think I more redefine what it is to be Australian. A lot of my readers are surprised to find out I’m Australian after seeing my name and what I look like. It just goes to show that Australians come in all different colors and from various backgrounds.
Since your work is well known around the world and has been published numerous times, you have become an icon for many young artists around the world. Speaking from our knowledge of working in Yangon as a start-up platform for young artists, and being writers ourselves, it is difficult to find opportunities in the arts in such a conservative culture like Myanmar. Do you hope to inspire young artists living in Myanmar? And what would you tell them?
Well thank you, that’s very kind. Sure, I hope so! It is so cool because I do get a lot of messages and emails from young Burmese readers who are amazed that I have a Burmese name because they haven’t seen that before in the comic world. I tell them just to keep creating and keep striving. The internet and the recent opening up of Myanmar to the wider world are so exciting for the youth of your country. There’s been no better time to start something, create something and to express them!
Myanmar as a country tends to have many different faces and a complex relationship with its people. Closing our interview, we would like to ask you what you see when you look back at the country, and society? Are there things, as a part of the diaspora and the larger community, that you would like to see changed?
Well, as an outsider looking in – unfortunately Myanmar is often not portrayed positively in the world media. Currently, the country’s reputation is suffering the persecution of the Rohingya people. In fact, many stories I see in the Australian media is of Rohingya being forced to flee here as refugees. I hope this situation can be solved with minimal bloodshed.

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