Hong Kong exhibition reflects on Myanmar’s dark past and its path towards the light

Artists subjected to the harshness and brutality of the pre-2010 regime offer a taste of how the transformations in the former dictatorship are affecting the arts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 February, 2016, 8:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 February, 2016, 8:01pm

A map of Myanmar made with carved bars of soap dominates the floor of 10 Chancery Lane Gallery in Central. The pale yellow blocks depict an abstract figure with his knees pulled up to his chin. Titled Soap Block, this work by artist Htein Lin maps his country’s often painful path towards democracy.

The gallery’s latest exhibition features works by seven artists from Myanmar and it gives a taste of how the seemingly irreversible transformations in the former dictatorship are affecting the arts.

As Htein Lin explains the idea behind Soap Block, it is clear that the military’s rule of fear is still too fresh, too raw to be treated as mere history. Artistic freedom may have been introduced since 2010, the year Aung San Suu Kyi was released from years of house arrest, but the country is still a long way from developing the kind of fond nostalgia for the old way of life that sometimes overcomes the new affluent class in mainland China and Vietnam.

“When I finally went home in 2013 after nearly seven years in exile, I thought about reproducing the soap carvings that I used to make in prison. I looked for the same kind of soap, but they were difficult to find. Now, people can choose from many different brands, bar soaps or liquid soaps, and not just Shwe Wah soaps. That was the only brand available for decades under the junta. The entire country, in their mind, only knew one kind of soap. It was a kind of brainwashing, the way we lived in the dark,” he says.

Not being able to choose his soaps was the least of the former guerilla fighter’s problems under the brutal military regime that ruled for nearly five decades.

Htein Lin, who was a student leader at university, spent four years fighting the government as a rebel before giving up his guns and becoming a performing artist in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, his name was mentioned in a letter from one dissident to another as a potential ally in 1998 and he was thrown in jail for six and a half years.

He winces when he recalls the physical torture in jail. “Our prison compound had a brick wall like that [he points to the wall of the former Victoria Prison compound directly across the gallery]. There were a lot of speakers on top of the wall. One day in 2000, all the speakers were turned up high, each playing a different kind of music. It was so loud you couldn’t hear anything. Next, they opened the cell doors and put us in blindfolds and handcuffs. And then they beat us and kicked us with their military boots,” he says.

There was worse to come.

READ MORE: Asia Art Archive’s Mobile Library travels to Myanmar

The inmates were later ordered to walk from one end of the prison to another through two rows of prison guards facing each other. “They beat us with their pipes when we walked past. Then, they transferred me to another prison and locked me up with people on death row. Our section was really dark. Night and day were the same and we only had 10 minutes a day outside. That lasted a year.”

Meditation and art helped to keep him sane. He bribed prison guards to get him paint and fellow prisoners donated bits of old cloth for him to use as canvas – some of the works he managed to keep are now on show in Hong Kong. The motif seen in Soap Block was created from his time in jail, when he had to spend long periods in solitary confinement, patiently waiting for the country’s rebirth.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is now Myanmar’s ruling party after its historic win in last November’s election.

Artists who grew up under a regime that imposed such extreme censorship as banning the use of certain colours worry that their newfound freedom will be snatched away again, says Aung Myat Htay, another artist featured in the exhibition.

“We feel it’s more free. But I think we still have a bit of fear. Change has been so recent that in our minds, we feel the threat,” he says.

“My years of living in Europe taught me that there’s censorship everywhere and you cannot trust any government, even Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. You have to be very sensitive to any threat to such freedom. Otherwise they will take it away,” says Htein Lin.

Exhibition curator Moe Satt, himself a highly respected performance artist, says the police continue to put pressure on artists.

Despite promises of artistic freedom after the junta made way for a civilian government in 2011, the police in 2012 shut down the public art performance that Moe Satt organised outside Mandalay Palace and arrested a number of participating artists.

“It was a public area where people go to exercise. The police arrested us for not having a permit. Why should we apply for a permit to make art?”

Satt, whose 2013 performance art piece Bicycle Tire Rolling Event from Yangon referred to Myanmar’s history of protests, was himself arrested but international outrage helped secure his release.

“Even the junta didn’t arrest artists for making art – they arrested them for other reasons. But now, under this so-called democracy, they arrested artists for making the art,” he says.

All three artists are concerned that the country is being torn apart by the internecine conflicts between different ethnic and religious groups. The persecution of the Rohingya Muslims by radical Buddhists has led to more than 100,000 Rohingya fleeing the country since 2012, while the Kachin Independence Army has fought a bloody war for independence for years.

“People need to understand multiculturalism. There is no need to marginalise minorities. We used to live peacefully. We have to understand that this is a game played by the elite, and the rest of us do not need to play that game,” says Lin.

Aung Myat Htay, who has brought three human-shaped statues with elaborate patterns to Hong Kong, says his works feature traditional icons taken from the classical mural paintings in the Bagan temple compound. In his bronze statues, they represent the human heart – the only thing that differentiates one person from another, he says.

Silent for a While: Contemporary Art from Myanmar, 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, 10 Chancery Lane, Central, Tue-Sat, 10am-6pm. Until Mar 13