Paintings banned in Myanmar to go on show

Exhibition of banned or censored paintings to be shown for the first time

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 October, 2014, 10:46am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 October, 2014, 12:38pm

Paintings of various styles, themes and colours form a patchwork-like carpet on the floor of Melissa Carlson's flat in Mid-Levels. For all their differences, the works have one thing in common - all had been censored or banned from public display in Myanmar.

They provide a glimpse of how artists navigated their way forward when the country was ruled by a military junta. This was a period when all creative expression - every book, song or work of art - had to be approved by Myanmar's state censorship board, and when criticism of the state could result in imprisonment or torture.

The public will be able to view them at an exhibition, "Banned in Burma: Painting Under Censorship", which opens at two venues starting on October 22.

Carefully picking her way between the works, Carlson recalls how she and co-curator Ian Holliday found the paintings on many visits to the country.

"Some were in poor condition - we had to pick off the dust and cobwebs," says the American graduate researcher who has written extensively on the art of Myanmar.

Like Holliday, a professor in political science at the University of Hong Kong, Carlson has a special interest in Myanmar affairs.

"A lot of the work was kept hidden in studios for years. It's a fascinating collection that really reflects the imprint of more than 50 years of the military regimes' fears, paranoia and nationalistic aspirations. It gives us a sense of the challenges faced by artists who experimented with non-traditional art forms," she says.

Most of the 50 featured paintings were created between 1962 and 2011, when any artwork deemed unacceptable was swiftly removed.

The two curators hope the show will provide a stepping stone for Myanmese artists to gain global exposure.

"Artists have long provided critical perspectives on Myanmar - both during the long dark night of authoritarian rule, and today, as the country starts to open up. Myanmese artists are eager to build their international contacts," says Holliday.

Carlson adds: "We're really excited about this - it's the first time censored works have been shown. For many, it's their first international exhibition."

The backstories to individual works can be as compelling as the art. Holding up a painting of a man with a helmet haircut, Carlson describes the self-portrait by Maung Theid Dhi as one of the oldest pieces in the show, and its centrepiece.

"Its story is so powerful," she says. Cut into the work are three large holes where a chain had been wound, representing life under the oppression of military rule. But in 1974, censors came to Maung Theid Dhi's show in Yangon and ripped the chains off. "They got his message," Carlson says.

He showed the work again in 1976, wrapped in leather, more chains and capped with antlers, under a new title The Hunters. Carlson adds: "That act got him imprisoned for 10 days."

Sandar Khine, whose bold depictions of the human form draw immediate attention, is among the few women represented in the show.

Set against blood red backgrounds, one painting features a man on his back, his genitalia dangling loosely on his thigh; another shows the back of a man seated on the ground, hands wrapped around his neck.

The two, banned from a show last year at Lokanat Galleries in Yangon, were among her more recent works to have fallen foul of censors.

However, Sandar Khine has occasionally managed to slip some paintings past the authorities, including a series featuring grotesquely large women with black cloth draped strategically around their bodies.

Carlson explains: "She wrapped the black cloth around the paintings to avoid censorship and it worked. The pieces are fascinating because it was her own comment on censorship."

Overtly political works such as Convocation (2003), which San Minn dedicated to the students of Yangon University, were immediately banned.

The artist was honouring students who in 1962 staged demonstrations against "unjust university rules", which resulted in the military breaking up the protest with bullets and tear gas. Dozens of students were shot dead and the historic Rangoon University Student Union building reduced to rubble.

"The university was blown up by the military with students inside," Holliday says.

Colours that artists used also came under close scrutiny, in particular red, white and black. To the censors, red represented revolution and blood.

After the National League for Democracy (NLD) was formed in 1988, the authorities became even more sensitive about the colour because the NLD flag features a fighting peacock on a field of red. As a result, apolitical works in red were banned, too.

"Banned in Burma" reveals the unique vocabulary developed by artists to evade what was a random - and often ludicrous - censorship process.

"It was up to the individual members of the censorship board - a military official - to decide what was appropriate and what was not, but it was really random. There were no clear boundaries," Carlson says.

A case in point is the 2003 work by San Minn called Civilization. It shows several human figures with heads of animals, including a cat and a parrot, against a backdrop of Yangon landmarks.

The artist was commenting on how a nation loses its sense of humanity as it develops, but the censorship board saw differently.

Some were in poor condition - we had to pick off the dust and cobwebs
Melissa Carlson, co-curator of the exhibition

"The rhino in the picture was in a uniform popular with government officials and in Burmese the word for rhino sounds like the word for USDP [the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party]. So the painting failed the test," Carlson explains.

Censors were also distrustful of abstract work, fearing there might be hidden political messages. Kin Maung Yin, for example, toyed with censors, and his clever use of euphemism to avoid censorship made him popular with collectors.

Seated Dancer, a series featuring women without smiles, hands or motion, was his way of expressing his frustration at the house arrest of NLD leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who was confined to her home for 15 years.

Guns, a 2002 abstract work by the artist which also addressed Suu Kyi's detention and authoritarian rule in Myanmar, had to be displayed in Thailand to avoid the censors.

Suu Kyi's release from house arrest in 2010 prompted painters such as Than Htay to focus on other political prisoners. Waiting For (2010), which depicts a pair of hands resting on the bars of a prison, expresses detainees' frustration at being kept from loved ones.

The authorities have been more relaxed since March 2011, when the country took its first steps in the transition towards civilian rule, and there is now more room for self-expression.

But nudes and any distortion of the Buddha still come under scrutiny.

Despite a more relaxed political climate, artists such as Shein are still sceptical about reform.

Speaking from Yangon, Shein says: "Seeing these paintings in Hong Kong, people might think Myanmar is now in a better situation and quite open, but inside it really isn't. They might see these censored paintings and think things have changed here, but in truth we don't know what will happen here with censorship."

Fellow painter Hein Thit agrees. "I can never guess what the trajectory of censorship is … the situation is changing so much that no one knows."

However, Myint Soe, whose works feature in the exhibition, fears Myanmar will lose its historically and culturally significant artwork as more paintings are sold overseas in coming years.

"People in Myanmar do not appreciate the value of these censored paintings, or even the need to preserve the paintings of Kin Maung Yin," he says, referring to one of the leaders of the country's modern art movement, who died in June at the age of 76.

"These artists, the older ones, were part of our revolutionary history, and all of this history is captured in the art from that period. We should protect and preserve it in a museum."

Three of the featured artists - Maung Theid Dhi, Myint San Myint and San Minn, who spent three years in prison for his political activism - will visit Hong Kong as part of the exhibition which, Carlson believes, many Hongkongers can relate to.

"Despite censorship, artists in Burma never stopped asking important questions about the future of their nation. We think this is a message that will resonate with Hong Kong people, particularly now."

"Banned in Burma: Painting Under Censorship", Oct 22-Nov 9, The Nock Art Foundation, 16/F, Workshop A, Kwai Bo Industrial Building, 40 Wong Chuk Hang Road; Nov 29-Dec 1, Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre, 7A Kennedy Rd, Central.

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