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HONG KONG — Optimism is the new normal among artists from Myanmar, and with good reason. In April 2012, national elections were held in the country for the first time since 1962, ending 50-plus years of military dictatorship. Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former political prisoner, was among those elected to parliament. Some of the older generation, bearing physical and psychic scars from undergoing arrest, imprisonment, and exile, emerged in October 2014 to participate in Banned in Burma, the first exhibition in Hong Kong to showcase formerly censored art from Myanmar. The artists in that heavily Buddhist nation, marked by breathtaking pagodas like the Shwedagon and, now, politicians who embrace non-violence, are making up for lost time — and they have a lot to say.
Seven artists from Myanmar are currently participating in Silent for a While, a group exhibition at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in Soho, Hong Kong: the husband and wife team of Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu; Htein Lin, a former political prisoner; poet Maung Day; paper artist Zun Ei Phyu; sculptor Aung Myat Htay; and Moe Satt, a 2015 Hugo Boss Asia Art award finalist and also the show’s curator. The catalogue, written by Min Khet Ye and edited by Nathalie Johnston, contextualizes and explains the trajectories of the artist’s respective oeuvres.
The opening featured “Optimism,” a performance that spilled out from the gallery onto narrow Chancery Lane. Moe Satt, dressed in a traditional lemon-ecru formal dress, asked audience members to draw smiley faces on sticky plastic balls and place them all over his body and face. Aung Myat Htay sorted, and then wore, yellow flowers, another symbol of optimism, while projecting a video onto his chest of the 2007 Burmese monks’ Saffron Revolution protests against inflation. Artist Htein Lin portrayed a monk, standing in the gallery’s window atop a can of paint and spreading his robe so that it came to look like a backlit pair of wings.
The most compelling work and story in the show is that of Htein Lin, a former student revolutionary and political prisoner turned artist and Theravada Buddhist practitioner. Lin took part in the 1988 uprising against military dictator Ne Win and then spent four years in exile in India, studying modernist art with Mandalay artist Sitt Nyein Aye. Later detained for his political activity, he escaped, earned a law degree, worked as an actor, and then took up art, making early performance pieces in 1996. In 1998 he was jailed on trumped-up charges and spent almost seven years behind bars. After his release in 2004, he left Myanmar and moved to London, but he repatriated himself, along with his family, in 2013.
The conditions in prison were extremely harsh; inmates endured 22 hours of solitary confinement a day. “Prison life changed my lifestyle, and the style of my creation,” Lin said. “I started meditating.” His choice of materials for making art in prison was severely limited to old uniforms, soap, bowls, and cigarette lighters. On view at Chancery Lane, his installation “Soap Block” (2015) consists of scores of carved pieces of soap. Each one depicts a man locked inside a square just big enough to contain him. Another work, “Father, Mother and Their Daughter,” is part of a monoprint series Lin made out of used shreds of prisoners’ clothing.
Myanmar has only two art schools, the National University of Art and Culture in Mandalay and the University of Arts and Culture, Yangon (Rangoon). Under Myanmar’s Ministry of Culture, the schools have a mandate to promote national unity and patriotism. A tension exists between the old and new, compelling some contemporary artists to skip traditional schools all together. A leftover culture of censorship still exists, though it’s fading now that more ubiquitous access to the internet finally arrived in 2013. Technically, official permission is still needed to mount most exhibits. But many artists would rather not expose themselves to political pressure or potential censorship. This forces them to come up with unique and intangible ways of making art. They must be extremely careful and clever to leave behind no evidence that could be used to prosecute them after the fact. To circumnavigate this challenge, in 2008 Satt founded the time-based performance art festival Beyond Pressure. Though it started with just a few local artists, in 2012 it grew to included regional artists from Vietnam, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia, and in 2014 expanded further, inviting artists from Taipei, Benin, and Singapore. This helps explain the fluidity with which the artists in Silent for a While took their performance onto the streets of Hong Kong.
Couple Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu’s acrylic and paper works deal with erasure, language, and reinterpretation; there are layers of meaning in their pieces not immediately apparent to those unfamiliar with Myanmar’s political strife. They tackle how news was continually manipulated and rewritten to serve the interests of the ruling military party. Writing in unique Burmese script, part of the Sino-Tibetan languages, they layer white pigment over news images, including those that have particular resonance for citizens of Myanmar. These pieces employ calligraphy to hauntingly evoke the use and misuse of words of propaganda. Their first US show, at the Project Space at Meulensteen Gallery in Chelsea, took place in 2009, and their series 1000 Pieces (of White) was bought by the Guggenheim Museum as Four Pieces (of White) for its permanent collection in 2012.
The younger generation of artists who emerged in Myanmar after 2000 is intentionally less political; their work tends to be more conceptual and interactive. Each of the six-foot-tall bronze sculptures in Aung Myat Htay’s My Heart (Face, God, Ogre) (2016) series has the face of either a god or an ogre cut into it — the two psychological controllers of the mind that drive our innermost actions. Htay also runs an online video series called DVD Magazine on Contemporary Art in Myanmar, which is hosted on YouTube and designed to introduce young Burmese artists to the world.
Zun Ei Phyu works with traditional paper-cutting techniques but puts a nontraditional spin on the form, through both her use of nuanced layering and her choice of topics. In “Hidden Face 1” (2016), she shows what appear to be little girls playing with hula hoops. On closer examination, however, the image suggests unspoken tensions that haunt their lives, with subtle, darker tones of red and blue lurking beneath the main surface.
Though some in the West lump all of Southeast Asian art together, Myanmar has a singular political and religious structure that shapes the issues these artists must confront. They have not endured the killing fields of Cambodia, nor the civil war and Communist insurgency that tore apart North and South Vietnam. They suffered under their own isolation and military dictatorship. However, they also staged their own mostly peaceful revolution, whose beacon, Aung San Suu Kyi, said: “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Silent for a While: Contemporary Art from Myanmar continues at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Katie de Tilly Contemporary Artists (10 Chancery Lane, Soho, Hong Kong) through March 13.