Siba Kumar Das

Biography : Siba Kumar Das Siba Das photo

I was born in 1940 in Jorhat, Assam, to a family dedicated to public service. I attended St. Edmund’s College (School Department) from 1948-1955 and then St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi, from 1956-1961. I now live in New York City, dividing my time between consulting for UN organizations and writing about art.

I retired from the United Nations Development Programme in 2000, upon completion of twenty-eight years of service to that organization, which focuses on reducing poverty and reducing inequality and exclusion. I served in UNDP’s headquarters in New York and in Iraq, Italy, Papua New Guinea (PNG), and Myanmar. In both Myanmar and PNG, I was United Nations Resident Coordinator in addition to being UNDP Representative.

Prior to joining UNDP, I served the Government of India as a member of the Indian Foreign Service, into which I was admitted in 1963. I worked in New Delhi, Prague, and again in New Delhi concentrating on economic and development issues.

I had the good fortune of being given a chance, as Representative in New York of the International Trade Centre — a joint agency of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization — to support over a two-year period the process whereby UN Member States adopted in September 2015 a set of universal Sustainable Development Goals applicable to all countries.

I am married to Zuzana Das, whom I met in Prague in 1965. We have a daughter and a son and a grand daughter.

At a time when a global art is coming into being, I am devoting more of my attention to my interest in art. When I was in St. Edmund’s an inspiring teacher, Brother McPhilemy, opened my mind to the wonders of poetry and literature and the possibilities of language. At home, my mother pushed me to learn singing. Later in Delhi, as a student in St. Stephen’s College, not only was my interest in literature solidified, I discovered the art of Amrita Sher Gil, pioneer Indian modernist. Thus began a growing interest in art. My long experience in the field of development has brought home to me that innovation is at the heart of development and that the creativity that drives innovation in economic life also drives the arts. Artistic creation and development are interrelated.

Published Articles:

1)          A Palazzo in Pennsylvania?
July 14, 2011

Just as you are leaving town in Hawley, PA, as you go northwest on Route 6, you see a bluestone building on your left—a large building (later I learnt it is the largest bluestone building in the world) looking like a castle. The moment I entered the car park, I realized that the park had been recently rehabilitated, and indeed the whole compound of the building had been spruced up and re-designed. The car park was nearly full. The opening of “Art on the Edge,” the show I had come to see on July 2, had attracted a lot of people. When I entered the building, a former silk mill, I came across a throng of people, many festively dressed, talking animatedly in what appeared to be a large cocktail party. When I looked at the spacious well-lit interior of the building, I saw how good it was for displaying art. I thought of MASS MoCA [Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the largest centers for contemporary visual and performing arts in the country, in North Adams, MA] and the way a disused factory complex had been converted to a beautiful and impressive museum of contemporary art. Was the same idea being replicated in Hawley? I soon learned from friends I met at the show that that was not what the owners of the building had in mind. While a small space might be retained as an art gallery, the main aim was to build up the facility as a combination of offices and retail establishments. And that was already happening. Had the owners taken a look at MASS MoCA and the economic and cultural transformation it has produced in the North Adams-Williamsburg area in western Massachusetts? MASS MoCA is by now not only a museum; it is also a performing arts center. Additionally, the complex moonlights as a collection of retail shops. It is a highly successful enterprise, which attracts visitors from all over the world. Every year some 100,000 people come to MASS MoCA to enjoy the arts and the natural beauty of the surrounding region. Maybe the developments that have already taken place in the Silk Mill could still be reconciled with the idea of a museum of art. The Prada Foundation is converting an 18th-century palace in Venice, Italy, into a museum of contemporary art. Why not think of a similar Palazzo in Pennsylvania—a Bluestone Palazzo? The Silk Mill looks like a castle, after all.



2) Nature’s Force: The Art of Naomi Teppich 

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower …”

— Dylan Thomas

What does Naomi Teppich, a Delaware Valley artist, have in common with an artist who is a giant of the Land Art movement? On October 8, 2011, the day a recent show of her work ended in New York City, the New York Times carried an article on Michael Heizer, the celebrated sculptor well known for enormous outdoor installations. But there is more to the story than this happy coincidence.

The granite boulder is gargantuan and monumental. It is 21 feet high and weighs 340 tons. Called ‘Levitated Mass’ by Michael Heizer, who created it, the work has created quite a stir lately because the sheer act of transporting it from the quarry where it was made to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has turned out to be a massive logistical and engineering feat. That adventure has spawned much newspaper comment.

When on October 8 I saw a photograph of the boulder in the New York Times, I immediately thought, “This is nothing else than a Stone Age tool writ large.” Whatever Heizer may mean by ‘levitated mass’ one thing seems clear: his giant rock takes you back through human history to the time when our ancestors chipped away from stone to create hand held tools – instruments through which human ingenuity, then more incipient than realized but beginning nonetheless, could be extended. And though these tools were utilitarian in purpose, once they were made they were also beautiful and seen to be so. Looking at them gave pleasure. It became apparent eventually that that pleasure was itself a most useful thing, for the more symmetrical the stone artifact the more efficient it was as a tool. The better the artist you were the more effective you were as an artisan. Michael Heizer’s granite mass harks back to this ancient multi-million year legacy. That is why it succeeds as a work of art.

Unlike Heizer, Naomi Teppich of the Delaware River Valley is not a Gulliver among land artists. But she takes things of the earth – things that are close to the earth like mushrooms or the fossils of trilobites, among the first to manifest and generate an explosion of biodiversity on Earth (the last of them died out about 250 million years ago) – and make ceramic sculpture based on the beauty of their forms. She recently had the show mentioned before in New York City’s Chelsea, a neighborhood that houses one of the largest concentrations of art galleries in the world.

When you reach Skylight Gallery on West 29th Street you ring a door bell, the door is buzzed open, you walk by a private detective agency to your left (shades of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and Robert Parker!), you climb a flight of stairs (it doesn’t creak and it’s not at all eerie!), and you come to an erstwhile apartment which, refurbished and wonderfully lit up, now allows you to make another kind of investigation – an investigation into an inner human space where visual art is still responding to an ancient human need. There, in one of three exhibition rooms, Naomi’s sculptures and drawings were on display from September 8 to October 8. (The works of two other artists were on show in the other rooms.)

If Heizer’s ‘Levitated Mass’ takes you back to a tremendously important evolutionary development in the human psyche and human capability a couple of million years ago, Naomi’s work creates a bridge to things that happened on earth hundreds of million years ago. Nature was creating beautiful forms even then without the intermediation of a conscious artist. Naomi and her sister and brother artists may be conscious organisms but who is to know if nature, subtler and more cunning than ever, is not driving them to do its work in ever more ingenious ways? Looking at Naomi’s ceramics and drawings of fossils, ferns, mushrooms and objects she calls ‘ancient morphons’ and moved by their strange beauty, I thought, “Here, surely, an ancient purpose, more ancient than we human beings, was being realized through beauty’s realm.”

This article appeared in The Green Door. Link:

Comment in PRWEB:

Art critic Siba Kumar Das, upon seeing Poller’s sculpture of Ho said, “I thought of the emotional power attributed to Bodisattvas. In this, she creates a continuum of figurative communication, just as Bodhisattva images do, by offering to the viewer an incarnation of compassion.”

The comment can be read at the following link:>.


3) Thoughts set off by two Rembrandt Drawings                                   

The first is a self-portrait dated 1635, a picture now belonging to the Kupferstichkabinett (Museum of Prints and Drawings) in Berlin. Rembrandt was about 29 when he made the picture. He looks older than his years. Most striking are Rembrandt’s eyes. You can see he is thinking about something. Or looking purposefully and intently. The picture is an image of dramatic intensity. To create an interesting image, R situates the better part of the depiction, including the head, in the left half of the picture, creating a compositional imbalance. To right this imbalance, he inserts into the right half a strange mysterious object that seems to be emitting light rays. Think here of Chagall. Questioned about the logic of separating a milkmaid’s head from her body in a painting in which she is floating in air, he said it was a compulsion arising from compositional necessity that led him to create the bifurcation, not some need flowing from his subject matter.

Literary historians and commentators spoke in the past about poetic license. What about artistic license? It existed long before twentieth century artistic licentiousness became perfectly permissible. The second drawing, also a part of the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin, depicts seven figures engaged in different activities. All are in action, to a greater or lesser degree, and it is interesting that while the figure to the left, arms in motion, is striding somewhere, the figures to the right are least in action. Is the old, distinguished looking man, bearded and turbaned, looking at a watch that he has in his right hand? The two figures below him — what are they gossiping about?

Either directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly, all seven are saying something. R achieves verisimilitude with great economy of means. These are images of the here and now — not another world. The Study of Seven Figures (c.1635) shows a totally human world, not a world lost in a larger divine space.

Callicoon, March 29, 2013 

This article appeared in Evernote. Here’s the link:



4)Reality Frames Imagination but What is Reality? The Art of Edward Evans

“For me nothing is abstract. In fact, I believe there is nothing more surreal, nothing more abstract than reality.”

Giorgio Morandi


Edward Evans often says two things come together in his art: the constantly reinvented realism of the Old Masters and the spontaneity and freedom of the Abstract Expressionists.[1] But he also makes you think of that great Italian twentieth-century modernist, Giorgio Morandi.

Consider first the professional life trajectories of the two artists. Morandi not only studied at Bologna’s Academy of Fine Arts and practiced his art in Bologna for most of his life, he taught drawing in the city and was a professor of printmaking in the Academy from 1930-1956. In similar vein, while developing as a painter in his native Minnesota, Evanstaught art in high schools and then went on to teach painting, drawing and contemporary art history at Southwest Minnesota State University. He also founded an art gallery that grew to become the Southwest Minnesota State University Art Museum. Though Evans moved to the East Coast in 2002, he is still the museum’s Director and remains active as a curator.

Siri Hustvedt has noted that the colors in Morandi’s paintings “are the colors you see when you walk the streets of any Italian town […].”[2] In a different North American milieu, Edward Evans grew up surrounded by the intense, vivid colors of a Minnesota still largely unchanged by urbanization – colors that are at their most intense in the fall season. Now that he’s living in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, very similar colors are again influencing his imagination. Greens, browns, rusty red, bright red, copper yellow, yellow-orange, smoky gold, brilliant gold, and the deep azures of deep water – all these hues thrown up by stunning landscapes, especially in autumn, appear in different ways in his paintings.

But Italy has also been an influence, especially the colors, textures, weathering, markings and graffiti of old walls in narrow, less-traveled passageways in Bologna and other cities.  One late afternoon, Ed Evans found himself in Bologna when the setting sun cast a brilliant yellow-orange light on a Bologna corner cafe where elderly men were seated at tables on a sidewalk.  It was the most brilliant light he had ever seen, and it gave the walls and men a magical glow.  This near-sublime experience – think of the light in Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert – led to a painting of his, Bologna Dialogue, that now hangs in a private Italian collection.

Evans’ colors are of different from Morandi’s. The master of Bologna’s use of opaque oil paint led to colors that are quite solid, while Evans, applying translucently sprayed acrylic paint, produces colors that are light-filled and glowing. His thin paint layers allow the white of the canvas to show through, even in areas that are painted black.

Both Morandi and Evans have sat attentively at various times and in different ways at the feet of the Old Masters of the Renaissance. During the first phase of the Renaissance, you saw the Old Masters showing a growing interest in drapery and landscape and expressing, too, a deepening sense of self and individuality. Secular motifs, these themes exemplified the pull of physical and psychological reality on the artistic sensibility of Renaissance painters even as they addressed the religious and mythological themes they were locked into. But as the Early Renaissance developed into the High Renaissance, the world of reality also began to be seen as strange and fantastic, permitting unusual approaches to scale, perspective and lighting, distorted figures, visible brushwork, and unorthodox coloration. Thus was born the Mannerism of Pantormo, Parmigianino, El Greco and many others, setting in train ideas that eventually flowered in the twentieth century through modern art, including the art of Morandi. Think also of the Expressionists of the early twentieth century and the ground they prepared for the Abstract Expressionists, on whose shoulders Evans stood.

Evans found convergence between the Old Masters’ vivid colors and the colors he saw in Minnesota and Italy and now sees in the Pocono Mountains. Think especially of the translucent luminousness of Pantormo’s hues, as seen most of all in his supreme masterpiece, The Deposition. And now gaze at three paintings Evans painted in 2012: Foiling the Glads, Homage to Frazetta, and Blasting Paul’s Mountain. As you do this, and if you look at other works of his, including paintings dominated by grays and blacks, such asThrust and Developing a Triangle, you will detect also an underlying preoccupation with the world being simultaneously another world. Evans’ colors and the structures and textures he conjures up give you an otherworldly feeling because they make you think of vast physical processes that might be unfolding on an astronomical or even cosmological scale. Are his paintings looking into the heart of things?

We must now turn to Cezanne, for without Cezanne being considered one cannot understand modernism in art. Gottfried Boehm has pointed out: “Morandi […] found himself as an artist once he had seen Cezanne’s art …”[3] Cezanne was anguished by the gap between what a painter sees and what he depicts in his drawing or painting, for memory comes in between, even in cases where the painter begins to draw or paint instantaneously after seeing the object of his attention.[4] Morandi took Cezanne’s insights[5] and developed them further. He realized that there was not only a crevasse between seeing and depicting; because perception occurred only if it was embodied, there was equally a gap between the object as perceived and the object as it really was, that is to say, between perception and reality, between manifestation and being. His anguish was double Cezanne’s. This is what you see in his bottles and jars and cups and trees; Morandi was using them to try to reach their underlying reality.[6]

Is Edward Evans trying to reach a similar reality? For him the act of painting is primordial.  While also wanting to paint the unknowable, unlike Morandi he chooses to start not with objects in the world but with the act of taking brush to canvas. Novelist Michael Ondaatje recently explained his approach to writing by citing an eastern aesthetic tradition: “In the east, the artist follows the brush.”[7] This is exactly what the Abstract Expressionists introduced into the world of art in a sea-changing kind of way. Taking a chance with his materials and building on the achievement of the Abstract Expressionists, Evans explores an inner landscape, a world of images embedded in his memory, to hint at new realities.

If you have already looked at Evans’ Blasting Paul’s Mountain, see it anew. The mountain is of course Mt. Sainte-Victoire, the very object that Cezanne painted so many times. Using an approach vastly different from Morandi’s –Evans had already developed his painterly strategies when he encountered the Italian artist’s work — he finds a fresh path to a destination similar to the goal to which Morandi aspired as he stood on Cezanne’s shoulders: the unknowable reality that the things of the world represent.


5) Reentering the Horizon-Ring: The Art of Leah Poller

Why does Leah Poller situate her art within the ring of the horizon? To reflect upon this question, visit New York’s Museum of Modern Art and gaze at the nine Kazimir Maleviches on display in Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925, the fascinating show the museum has mounted till April 15, 2013. You will see what Malevich meant when he said he had “destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things, from the horizon-ring that confines the artists and forms of nature.” It is in his art that painting became truly non-figurative, as art historian Patrick McCaughey says in a recent review of the exhibition. But the revolution historicized by MOMA began a century ago, and the world from which it sprang is no longer our world, though it released forces that made our world and we still relate to it. Leah Poller’s sculpture tells you that we need once again to reenter the arc of the horizon and reengage with the figures and forms of the world.

Travel now to London’s British Museum and see Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind, a show that will run till May 26, 2013. Here you will witness the oldest known sculptures, drawings and portraits so far discovered. Made between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, this art was figurative and it coincided, as the sub-title suggests, with the emergence of the modern mind. Contrast this art with the earliest art so far known: the 75,000-year-old art found in the Blombos cave in South Africa. This art was not figurative. It was abstract. The curator of the London show argues that existential pressures unleashed by the Ice Age created figurative art because such art aided human communication and cooperation. It extended language by going beyond it.

Correlation is not causation necessarily but consider this. For 400 years or so after the founding of the Buddhism in India, images of Gautama Buddha do not seem to have been commonly made. Such early Buddhist sculpture as survives today relied upon non-figural symbols to communicate its messages. It’s only around the beginning of the Common Era, when Buddhism began to spread beyond India, towards Central Asia and the Far East, that Buddhist art took on a figural language. The need to communicate across a large and growing geography seemed to have sprouted a Buddhist art that was vibrantly and dramatically a figurative art.

When I visited Leah Poller’s studio a few weeks ago, I thought I saw a Boddhisatva before it was taken away to a Pennsylvania foundry. I’m referencing the figure of Fred Ho, jazz saxophonist and composer, which you see now in bronze: the sculpture Poller calls Double Dare. This is figuration that reminds you of Giorgione’s achievement half a millennium ago in Renaissance Italy. He put humans and human constructions and natural things and landscape into a single continuum, the whole suffused by an enigmatic Arcadian longing. Thanks to Poller’s art, between you and Fred is a single continuum. He incarnates compassion, as Bodhisattvas did, and it is surely this playful and joyful human solidarity that drives his music.

Look now at the real, magical portrait that is the sculpture Poller names Only As his Mother Knows Him. Suffering, stoicism and again empathy and compassion radiate from the pitted and mottled surface she gives to this figure, whose spatial presence interrupts light to throw light on the human condition. This bronzed subject, rooted in psychological depth, communicates with you. It tells stories. Story-telling is a leitmotif that also animates two of Poller’s pieces that belong to her series partially inspired by that great twentieth century Surrealist, Max Ernst, who was endlessly inventive and whimsical — the 101 beds. Both Lei aveva venti ani (“She was twenty years old”) and In a Leap from her Bed are in part self-history and in part reflections on time and transformation. You can see in these lost-wax cast bronze sculptures Poller’s great technical skill. Intricate craftsmanship converges here with an intricacy of narration that opens up in the viewer’s mind pathway after pathway, colonnade after colonnade.

Richard Harvey Brown, the political and social theorist who showed that both science and art rely on metaphoric thinking as their “logic of discovery”, described Poller’s works as capturing and holding “in imaginative awareness the diversity and complexity of the contemporary era.” Recall how over 2,000 years ago figurative art seems to have aided Buddhism’s long journey from India to Central and East Asia and thereafter to global reach. Recall also how, 40,000 years ago, the pressures of the Ice Age generated a figurative art that may also have resulted from the arrival of the modern mind. We are living in a still fragmented but globalizing world. We are also living in a world buffeted by climate change – an enormous problem that must be confronted globally through worldwide cooperation. Is Poller’s figurative neo-realist sculpture an art for our times? Richard Brown seemed to think so. He saw in her works “signs for other signs, especially signs of the globalization of culture and the internationalization of consciousness.” Abstract art will continue to appeal and to be relevant. Today’s world, however, also calls for re-entering Malevich’s ring of the horizon. Leah Poller’s art shows you the way.


6)Creatures of the times 

We are all creatures of our times. But what does that mean exactly? John Maynard Keynes wrote his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in the midst of the Great Depression. He also wrote it against the background of a prolonged high unemployment crisis that had started in Great Britain in the 1920s well before the Great Crash. Thinking they didn’t have fiscal space, successive policy makers in the UK government failed to respond to the problem by increasing public spending, despite Keynes’s calls that they should do so. (Isn’t something similar happening now in Britain? And for that matter in the United States? In a recent FT column, Martin Wolf described the fiscal policy stance of the current UK Government as one of “kamikaze tightening”. And in Washington even Obama has joined the ranks of the fiscal responsibility crowd at a time when Bernanke’s creative monetary policies may not work unless fiscal policy reinforces them.)

The long-lasting unemployment blight of the 1920s and 1930s obviously set Keynes thinking. But that does not mean that, had the problem not existed, Keynes would not have concluded that only Government spending could revive an economy laid low by poor household sector and private sector demand? Surely such an inference cannot be drawn. The UK’s economic stagnation gave urgency and force to what Keynes had to say. To acknowledge this is one thing. But to go beyond this to say it is the stagnation that generated the theory would not be reasonable at all.

Take also the case of Keynes’s opponent, Friedrich Hayek. He lived through the hyperinflation that ruined the lives of millions of Austrians after the First World War. That, surely, had much to do with his view that public spending aimed at curtailing unemployment would end up not creating jobs but stoking uncontrollable inflation instead. And, to boot, political liberty would be snuffed out as well. How is it that two economists living through the same times came to such contrasting conclusions? Hayek thought that enlarging government’s role in the economy would inevitably recreate Germany’s fate. He had a dark view of government. That must have been the starting point. The hyperinflation that ruined both Germany and Austria and helped give rise to Hitler reinforced a view that originated in something else – a pre-existing anti-government bent of mind.

Hayek did not publish much in the pre-war years. His celebrated “Road to Serfdom” came out in 1944. And when it did, Keynes was swift to rebut one of its central arguments. The rise of National Socialism, he pointed out, was not catalyzed by too much government action but rather by a failure of capitalism. Certain ways of looking at the world are inherent in us. We are creatures of the times but we are also creatures that create the times.

Note: A book on the Keynes-Hayek clash has just been published.

October 27, 2011


7) Thoughts inspired by a Tree

I have looked at this tree so many times and in so many ways. Each time it had a different look. Today, under an overcast sky, it is still and somber and gravely it tells me it has seen the world a long time. It lost a branch in a storm a few years ago. “I nearly broke the roof of your house with that arm,” he says. I give you shade, I give you shelter from snow and ice in the winter and from the heavy rain that would spatter your window in a summer storm. Most of all, I give you something spiritual. I remind you of the eons of time that have gone into making the world you know today. You do not know my name, and I cannot name you. But between us there is a bond. I embody the earth and the stars and the galaxy on whose arm you are perched. And remember when the sun comes out I shine in its light.


8) The Beauty of the Delaware 

When I was a young person I scoffed at my wife when she urged me to exercise my body. “I exercise my brain and that’s good enough,” I said.  It’s late in life I realized how foolish I was. I was overweight in my thirties and forties; today I’m not. For this I must thank the beauty of the Delaware River. For the last decade I have been taking frequent walks along its New York bank north of Callicoon.

The Delaware is Callicoon’s biggest glory. Upstream from the bridge to Pennsylvania the waters make a great arc widening to a lake-like expanse. Here the river glows at dusk with an ethereal light. When the geese land noisily on the grey water just before nightfall they light up the water in parallel lines with their furrows. You see streak after streak of splashing water catching the last light.

The Catskill Mountains were once an ancient plateau. Sitting atop layered rocks that were formed some 375 million years ago when the region was under a Devonian sea, the plateau has been gradually eroded by the down cutting action of glaciers and streams. Today’s mountains and valleys are the result. During my walks I sometimes think of this extraordinary geological adventure. The river and its valley are the product of a story that had been unfolding for millions of years. Should we not think twice before we interfere too drastically with this accumulating process?

The Catskill region’s ecosystem has known calamity before. We had here millions of acres of hemlock and pine. Late in the 18th century a logging industry arose in response to an insatiable demand for naval ship masts.  With manufacturing’s rise, other demands followed. Logged unsustainably, by the early 20th century the forests were gone.


9) Art’s creation

It’s amazing that stone tools of the really primitive Oldowan toolkit – simple chopping tools – were in use for a million years or even longer before hominins invented the more effective Acheulian stone axes. A million years is an immense span of time. I find it mind-boggling and awe inspiring that technological and cultural progress was so slow for so long. Movement along the adjacent possible was not significantly possible till brain development crossed a certain threshold. And that development, evidently, was itself an immensely slow process.

But think also that brain development, no matter how slow, was a miracle after all. Eventually, the day came when an axe of stone came into being though an act of human creativity. And was it not a thing of beauty? As an ancestor 1.76 million years ago, was completing, say, a bifacial axe and showing it to a companion, did the pair break out into smiles and experience a sense of pleasure when they saw its near symmetry? Was it then that an artifact became a work of art even as it retained its functional purpose?

Maybe some kind of a feedback loop came into play. The axe’s beauty was not simply a self-referential thing. It was also an indicator of the axe’s effectiveness and efficacy as a tool for enhancing survival and the prolongation of life – the more beautiful the axe, the better it was as a tool. Although beauty would not be conceptualized for nearly 1.76 million years – and think how long a span that was – hominins may have pursued beauty more and more, using adjacent possible after adjacent possible, simple because it brought them more food and made it possible for them to do other things, like chopping off tree branches for a shelter, for example. Beauty created better technological change even as it gave pleasure. It became something similar to sex.

Was that how art came into being?  Possibly, it did.


10)  Myanmar opening up to the Outside World

That Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will visit Myanmar (Burma) early December is really a big deal. The country’s opening to the outside world represents a huge opportunity for human progress in the Asia-Pacific region. If her interaction with Myanmar’s leaders spurs sustained political and economic reform in their nation and adds strong momentum to the steps so far taken on the reform path, her visit will have made a significant contribution to both regional interests and key American objectives, including global and regional stability and much needed revival of the American economy through expanded links with an enormous fast-growing Asian market.

Myanmar’s exclusion from the changes in the Asia-Pacific region is a big hole. With its forty-eight million people and it’s still vast agricultural, forestry and water resources, this is a country capable of making a vital contribution to regional development and the solution of global problems, including food security and climate change. American policy could play an instrumental role in bringing the people of Myanmar back into the international mainstream.  American efforts, however, will only succeed if they gain strength from the policies and actions of regional countries. The U.S. is wisely linking its emerging Burma policy to its growing cooperation with such institutions as ASEAN and APEC.

There is, however, another dimension that needs to be taken into account. Since the early 1990s, when much of the international community began to isolate the Myanmar regime, the only multilateral international organizations that have an unbroken record of continuous engagement with the country’s problems — political, human rights-related, humanitarian, economic and social — are the United Nations and its family of agencies. This represents a body of experience that will hold the international community in good stead as Myanmar’s global re-integration is appropriately fostered. In the wake of Cyclone Nargis, a regional and international humanitarian response to the needs of the beleaguered people of Myanmar was put in place through partnership between ASEAN and the United Nations system. Regional and international cooperation in support of multi-faceted policy reform in Myanmar should now become a strong pillar of U.S. policy.

Myanmar’s reform process will need to move on many fronts. What is needed first is further democratization and good governance – not only with a view to establishing the rule of law, ensuring effectiveness of public services, unleashing private initiative and enterprise, and sustaining people’s participation in public policy but, in the context of the country’s multi-ethnic society, also enhancing a federal political architecture anchored in genuine decentralization. Next in line must be the promotion of economic growth as a means of eradicating the country’s widespread poverty.  Sound macro-economic policies must then make sure that growth is indeed broad-based, inclusive and job creating. The country’s enormous human development needs, in health, education and other sectors, will need to be addressed, in the nation as a whole but especially in the remote border areas where Myanmar’s sizeable ethnic minorities live. An infrastructure program of daunting size – a critical necessity for the country’s political and social cohesion — will need to buttress all these changes. What’s more, the country has growing environmental and natural resource depletion problems, aggravated by global climate change.

This is a challenging national agenda. That Myanmar’s people will apply to it unique historical, cultural, intellectual and entrepreneurial resources cannot be doubted.  But they will need help. Depending upon the outcome of Secretary Clinton’s visit, the United States will likely explore how its own institutions could support and speed Myanmar’s efforts. It will surely also discuss with key partners how best to deploy the intellectual and financial resources of the Bretton Woods Institutions and the Asian Development Bank. For these efforts to bear best fruit, the knowledge and in-country experience of the United Nations system, underpinned by a continuous on-the-ground presence of a number of UN agencies within the country, must also be mobilized – to ensure inclusiveness of economic growth, to foster broad-based human development, to direct attention to the poorest of the poor, to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, to integrate environmental and climate change considerations into public policy, and to support institutional development for democracy and respect for human rights. Working with ASEAN and other regional institutions, the UN system could also promote regional and cross-border cooperation as an adjunct to global policy. Secretary Clinton’s visit holds promise of historic significance. Mobilizing the support of regional and international organizations, including the United Nations system, will be critically important.


[1] See, for example, Edward Evans’ “Artist’s Statement” in Edward Evans and Nanni Menetti, Depth of the Surface (Bologna: Book Editore), 13.

[2] Siri Hustvedt, “Giorgio Morandi,” in Writers on Artists (New York: D.K. Publishing, Inc., in association with Modern Painters, 2001), 266.

[3] Gottfried Boehm, “Giorgio Morandi’s Artistic Concept,” in Giorgio Morandi: Paintings, Watercolours, Drawings, Etchings, ed. Ernst-Gerhard Guse and Franz Armin Morat (Munich, London and New York: Prestel Verlag, 2008, reprinted 2011), 13.

[4] See David Sylvester, Looking at Giacometti (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1996), 35-36. Sylvester has also written insightfully about Morandi.

[5] As reported by Joachin Gasquet, Cezanne said, “Everything we see disperses and vanishes, doesn’t it? […] It might be supposed that realism consists in copying a glass as it is on the table. In fact, one never copies anything but the vision of it at each moment, the image that becomes conscious. You never copy the glass on the table; you copy the residue of a vision.” See Gasquet, Cezanne (Paris: Bernheim-Jeune, 1926), 130, quoted in Sylvester, Ibid, 35.

[6] For illuminating discussions on Morandi’s conceptual aims as a painter, see not only Gottfried Boehm, Ibid, but also Siri Hustvedt, “The Drama of Perception: Looking at Morandi,” in Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2012), 232-244. The essay was delivered as a lecture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York on Sept. 21, 2008.

[7] See Robert McCrum, “Michael Ondaatje: The Divided Man,” The Observer, 27 August 2011. It is worth recalling that the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York organized from January 30-April 19, 2009 an exhibition entitled The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989, which focused on the transmission of ideas from Asian sources to American artists (