How artist Judith Sinnamon came to paint Tin Tin Maw and others, and how she grew to love Yangon.

“These paintings honour the everyday, women doing amazing things. What these women do is important and makes the place work…. They are all strong and gorgeous….That’s what they do in Myanmar – they carry things on their heads.” Judith Sinnamon, Yangon, 2015

In preparation for exhibitions in Pomelo Studio, Yangon, and Edwina Corlette Gallery, Brisbane, Judith Sinnamon captured the beauty of the street hawker women of her newfound home in Myanmar. Fascinated by their traditional thanaka face paint, she tells the story of how she came to know the five women who sat for their portraits during their long working days.

“One of the first things that struck me was the melodic calls of the women hawking in the streets, sounds floating up to us on the 7th floor of our new home on 37th Street.”

It took a long time before I got the guts to ask Tin Tin Maw (who sells eggs) to sit for a portrait. I wanted to paint her but how? I’d see her in the street. She walked through everyday at 3:30pm on her way to start work at the food stall on the corner of Pansodan Street. I came to expect her. She lived between the teashop and our house. I’d hear the hawkers coming and take photos and films of them passing, looking down from the 7th floor. When I asked Tin Tin Maw if I could take her photo, she stood there with her eggs and bags while I fiddled with the camera that wasn’t working properly. I felt so bad, so guilty. I thought I was doing the ‘exotic local’ thing. I felt really exploitative. I wanted to apologise. So I asked a man to explain to her what I wanted to do. Then the next day she turned up here at noon before she started work, with this guy who wanted $200. I paid her 80,000 kyats for three two-hour sessions.

She’s illiterate. I bought all those eggs – 90 of them. We got salmonella poisoning a few days afterwards and wondered if that was it. I bought something from each of the hawkers – a broom, a bowl, some baskets

There’s something about working women in plaid. There are such beautiful traditional textiles here, yet a lot of women wear contemporary clothes. They’re into patterns and lace, sparkly tops with lace, making a blur. Painting the plaid nearly did my head in, but I like painting weaving, and baskets.

I loved Aye Aye Win with her fish, in her tight little shirt, her little round body pushing out. She was so little too. When she sat on the stool her feet couldn’t touch the floor. Her feet were like fish, like a mermaid, walking down the street in her longyi. She apologised for being too fat through Yu Yu the translator.

The thanaka on the face is traditional face cream and there are variations; these are fairly similar. Some are so perfect. Some are a bit worn.

The women were all a bit scared of us. To be painted is such a foreign idea. They all fell asleep while sitting for their portraits. They were so tired. I put on local Myanmar radio, which is quite soothing, like I’d listen to National Radio in Australia. It’s very precious to have that time with them. These women are working hard to earn a living in a crazy changing Yangon.

‘Judith Sinnamon New Paintings’ Pomelo Studio, Yangon 31 October— 10 November; Edwina Corlette Gallery, Brisbane 28 November—18 Decmber

Judith’s Yangon, as recorded by Virginia Henderson, co-author of Yangon Echoes, Inside heritage homes.

January 2015, when we arrived in Yangon, it was total reorientation for me. I’d just arrived from living in a rainforest in Maleny, Queensland, Australia. I was painting trees, coastal banksia and zig zag wattle, muted and subtle tones. That was our area, the mountains and down on the coast..

Yangon is an extreme environment, intense. The sounds and smells are so full on. People, people, people. Going from trees to people was probably a most logical thing for me. One of the first things that struck me were the melodic calls of the women hawking in the streets, sounds floating up to us on the 7th floor of our new home on 37th Street.

At the beginning I was quite homesick looking through barred windows at sick pigeons. Bit by bit, I started to hear the birds singing here in downtown Yangon.

I didn’t know what to paint at first, but I knew I wanted to do portraits again. I love sitting in front of a person and looking into their face, trying to capture their essence