By Thanwa Sirimatee
One day at the beginning of last year, a group of people hurried through the streets of central Rangoon. It was almost midnight, when most Burmese were already asleep, but this group had been invited to a gallery to see a secret exhibition of paintings by three well-known artists.
The invited guests had all been carefully screened to make sure they could keep the secret from government censors, lest the artists be arrested for “degrading” Burmese culture and, at the very least, their names placed on the state’s black list.
At the gallery at midnight sharp, the paintings – none less than a metre square – were unveiled. Everyone rushed forward to admire the rarely seen depictions of female nudes, knowing that the show would end in just two hours.
And that’s what happened. At 2am the gallery lights were turned off one by one, the signal that the exhibition was over, and everyone hurriedly left, out of concern that “uninvited guests” might still appear. Four years earlier an art show just like this, planned to last a month, had been shut down after just a few days when the censors found out about it. The 30 artists in that exhibition had scurried to take their paintings home.
That’s why this show was scheduled for just two hours after midnight. No one wanted to risk having an uninvited guest.
The secret art exhibit is a reflection of the situation in Burma, where the junta controls the lives of the people in every respect. It is, at the same time, a sign that Burma’s artists have not surrendered. They still enjoy the freedom of imagination – and find ways to share it.
Art within confined limits
Cho Cho Aung, the 52-year-old artist who owns the Ban Thu Sander art school in Mandalay, picks up one of her young student’s paintings, showing a monk with his alms bowl. A government official had complained about it.
“The state officer doesn’t like this painting because the colour of the monk’s robes and the way he’s wearing them is not exactly correct,” she says. “The government doesn’t understand that, with art, children should be allowed to express their imaginations freely. It’s not supposed to be a realistic portrait.”
Cho Cho Aung is the daughter of Oo Aung Khin, the acclaimed arts master who began these classes in 1994. The school offers three-month courses, with classes lasting three hours a day. The tuition is 20,000 kyat – the equivalent of about 600 baht. So far there have been more than 500 graduates.
“Because the government attaches no importance to art instruction, it won’t provide us with teachers or materials,” Cho Cho Aung points out. “Every year I donate painting materials to a school at random or teach at an orphanage.”
That there are two styles of children’s art instruction in Burma, she says. The government supports the realistic depiction of monks accurately robed and landmarks and portraits rendered in genuine colours. It does not like pictures born from imagination – images that do not exist in the real world. No dreams of travelling to heaven surrounded by angels, for example.
There are two major art schools in Burma – the Art and Culture Universities of Yangon and Mandalay. Before the government launched its “Visit Myanmar Year” tourism promotion in 1996, few parents encouraged their children to consider the arts as a career. The income was simply too uncertain. Even the creatively talented pursued other subjects while developing their artistic skills on their own.
The rise in foreign tourists made a career in the arts more viable, though. Many children were encouraged to become artists because they could earn considerable sums selling their paintings.
Today there are chiefly two kinds of Burmese painting: commercial and individualistic. The former involves repetitive images of tourist landmarks – the Shwedagon and Kyaikhtiyo (Indra Kwan) pagodas, scenes in Bagan and Mandalay – and copies of well-known works by national artists, such as Min Way Aung’s painting of monks, novices and nuns, which fetch thousands of dollars overseas.
The individual-style paintings typically spring from random inspiration, often take months to develop, and cannot be replicated. Such artists continuously produce and distribute fresh works until they gain some level of public recognition, and they are more likely to be popular abroad. Among those who have done well are the impressionist U Lun Gwe, Kyee Myintt Saw with his market scenes and night views of Rangoon, the expressionistic Zaw Win Pe, and Nay Myo Say, who specializes in portraits and depictions of traditional dancing.
Then there is the “forbidden painting”. It is prohibited to exhibit or sell paintings featuring nudity or political content – certainly not pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi or her father Aung San – or anything in the black and red tones associated with communism. Nor are depictions of beggars or slum life allowed, in case they give foreigners a bad impression of the country.
For the most part, as a result, artists stick to legal and marketable subject matter – religious imagery, traditional costumes, the countryside, cultural festivals and tourist destinations.
The government has established an art association called Myanmar Nai Ngan Yoya Panpin Yachin A se Yong to ensure that creative individuals do not stray “beyond the frame”. Members enjoy many privileges, such as receiving passes to attend exhibitions abroad, and being able to use the association’s office to show their own work. They pay for these privileges by being closely monitored in their productive output, and are sometimes called upon to be part of a censorship committee that examines other artists’ work. Those who actively promote the military government might appear on state television, participate in annual state-run exhibitions – and share their income from painting sales with the government.
There are also many art clubs, such as the Gant Gaw group at Rangoon University, which takes its name from a flower. Students from different academic fields who are interested in the arts gather to exchange ideas and arrange joint exhibitions, but often their work has featured political critique, resulting in the group being temporarily banned.
Mandalay has the Htan Yeik Nyo group, and various galleries have coteries of artists banded together in associations.
Censorship is, naturally, a source of frustration. Artists must inform the appropriate censorship unit if they want to arrange an exhibition, providing detailed descriptions of each piece to be displayed. Some works defy description – how does one convey in words a painting’s emotion? Yet one artist’s failure, some years ago, to define the content of his abstracts in an official report resulted in his Mandalay exhibition being blocked.
And yet, despite all the obstacles, many artists still want to reach for the stars.
Reaching for the dream
On Min Gun Island, an hour’s ferry ride from Mandalay, tourists visit a giant bell among ancient ruins that’s been converted into a souvenir shop selling paintings by local artists.
Cho Cho Aung, 39, is the island’s best-known artist, and one of the very few in the country who can live on the income from his painting alone. It wasn’t easy reaching that level.
“Nobody wanted their children to be artists in the past because they didn’t believe artists could earn enough to feed the family,” he confirms. “I started painting because I loved to paint, but I had to starve so that I had enough money for my materials. Sometimes I lived on just bread with tea. But I was happy – I could paint from my inspiration.”
He sold his first painting in 1995 for 700 kyat. Today a single work can bring US$300, and his name is recognized overseas. The appeal of Soe Aung’s work is in his portrayals of ordinary people striving to make a living. A cursory look might suggest a pleasant scene and natural surroundings, but he is in fact surreptitiously depicting the poverty problem in Burma.
One painting showed Buddhist novices playing in the road, watched by a dog wearing eyeglasses. What seemed like a whimsical moment with a religious aspect became overtly political when one noticed the dog’s precise resemblance to General Khin Nyunt, the prime minister at the time.
Soe Aung has sold more than 300 paintings in the past decade, each telling a different story derived from his evolving feelings and inspirations. Few other artists in Burma have been able to match his achievement, and poverty remains their lot. Their artwork must by necessity take second place to their primary-income jobs.
Mu Mu, a young artist from the town of May Myo, owns the Lavie Art Gallery. One of only two artists in the country known for their paintings on mulberry paper, he invented his own brush for the purpose, guided by Japanese artist friends who came to the Lavie. His fame has earned the gallery a nod in the Lonely Planet guidebooks.
“I was lucky that my father was interested in the arts, and he encouraged me to paint, all the way from childhood to the day I graduated from the University of Arts in Mandalay. I had six classmates there, but only two have been able to make a living from art. The art market is better today and there are more children pursuing art studies, but it’s still difficult for young artists to achieve financial security because the tourists tend to look for only the famous artists’ works that are recommended in their guidebooks.”
The path is clearly not strewn with rose petals. It’s a long and arduous journey and, as a career choice, art remains daunting.
The underground master
Every afternoon the apartment door is locked securely and a painting in progress is brought from its hiding place in a storage room into the light of day. Tin Win – not his real name – applies pigment to a portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi.
It’s not the first time he has painted her picture, nor will it be the last, and Tin Win intends to paint her late father as well, General Aung San, the hero of Burma’s independence, ready for an exhibition some day in a foreign country. Meanwhile the artwork hides.
Tin Win does not. He is one of the most famous artists in Burma and his work is internationally known – paintings of the type permitted by the government. Nonetheless he risks keeping a secret. If his hidden passion is discovered and he is arrested, he will never be allowed to paint again. Even in the shadow of this authoritarian threat he allows his heart its daily afternoon stroll in freedom’s sunshine. Imagination waits for a wall to come down.
Min Zaw has secretly painted Aung San Suu Kyi more than 50 times since 1990. Some of these works have been sold to trusted acquaintances, some to buyers overseas, and one of them is owned the subject herself. Min Zaw’s picture of the leader of the National League for Democracy sitting at her desk is now hanging on her office wall.
Min Zaw once did a life-size portrait of Suu Kyi and presented it to her when she was travelling to the town of Depayin in Kachin state. She promised to pick it up on her way back to Rangoon. That promise went unfulfilled when her motorcade was ambushed en route. She has been under house arrest ever since.
“I respect and believe in the things she has done for the people of Burma,” he says. “I don’t want the world to forget her. The government can prohibit displays of paintings of Suu Kyi in Burma, but it can’t stop me from painting her portrait.”
Such paintings can reach other countries in many ways. Some, rolled up or flat, are hidden among other items and luggage crossing the border. Crucially, the person transporting them must be trustworthy, since betrayal would lead directly to prison. They usually give “tea money” to border officials to waive inspection, or at times pay another carrier who crosses the frontier regularly and won’t arouse suspicion. The process has the effect of making the forbidden paintings pricier than other Burmese works.
The fundamental situation remains unchanged, however. Although the authoritarian dictatorship might able to control creative expression – banning nudes, satire and political criticism – it will never be able to control the imagination, nor prevent such works from being seen outside the country.
This is the world of the Burmese artist, at once suppressive and daring, full of colourful stories to share with people beyond the borders, and perhaps even more compelling than those of artists in other nations.
Translated from the cover story in Salween Post Magazine
Vol 34 (October1 – 15 November, 2006)