In this webinar, Mr Htein Lin spoke about how the subjects and materials of his art reflect contemporary Myanmar history and politics, and capture elements of Myanmar culture which are disappearing as the country modernises.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
The Politics of Art in Southeast Asia Seminar Series
Wednesday, 25 August 2020 — The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute invited Mr Htein Lin, a Burmese painter and performance artist to speak in a webinar on how the subjects and materials of his art reflect contemporary Myanmar history and politics, and capture elements of Myanmar culture which are disappearing as the country modernises. This webinar was part of the Politics of Art in Southeast Asia Seminar Series supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) and moderated by Dr Su-Ann Oh. Christian Echle, Director of Regional Programme Political Dialogue Asia at KAS gave opening remarks, appreciating the universal quality to Mr Htein Lin’s works as art helps us to understand political processes better, giving us direct emotional access.
Mr Htein Lin’s webinar focused on the way in which he produced his art which was influenced by his experiences in Myanmar under the military regime, during the pro-democracy movement and currently, under institutionalised democracy.
Mr Htein Lin began with the above artwork, which was made using the style he developed while imprisoned. The image depicts two medics carrying an injured protestor, an iconic image from Myanmar’s 8-8-88 demonstrations against one party rule, which he juxtaposes with another image from the pro democracy protests 30 years later in Hong Kong. He began by explaining that he was a law student at Yangon University in 1988. He became one of the student leaders demonstrating against the lack of police investigation into a fellow student protestor’s death.
Mr Htein Lin then fled to the jungle when the military undertook a coup d’etat. He talked about the struggles of surviving in the jungle. There were also internal conflicts within the rebel group he joined with one group suspecting the other of treachery. After Mr Htein Lin escaped the jungle, he returned to the university to complete his education, and later became a full-time artist. It was at this point that Mr Htein Lin became a political prisoner. The police arrested him because they found his name on a list of invitees for a 10-year anniversary gathering of the 1988 uprising. Mr Htein was not aware of this list.
During his seven years of imprisonment, Mr Htein Lin was placed in solitary confinement. He used this as an opportunity to continue making art. He explained that since he was already in prison, he would not have to worry about being persecuted by the censorship board. He created art with materials and supplies that were available to him in the prison or through smuggling. He used his prison uniform as a canvas and enlisted the help of a prison security guard to provide paint. He used plates to paint the outline of faces, used his fingers and other items such as lighter parts. He mostly used the technique of monoprinting. Mr Htein Lin felt that the government could lock him up, but they could not lock up his creativity.
After his release, Mr Htein Lin resided in the United Kingdom where he had solo art shows. Upon return to Myanmar in the 2012, he had the opportunity to meet other former political prisoners who had just been released. Here, after he broke his arm, he developed the idea of using plaster of Paris to make moulds of the hands of former political prisoners’ arm. He used public spaces to make them and during the setting period of 15 min -30 min, he interviewed the former political prisoners on their experiences. He recorded these interactions for the public to listen. Mr Htein Lin said that doing so increases freedom of expression and increases knowledge about the experience of political prisoners. This project, known as ‘A Show of Hands’ has been ongoing for three years. Thus far, Mr Htein Lin has collected about 500 hands and he intends to continue collecting from the former political prisoners he meets. During this project, Mr Htein was also struck by the number of women who were involved in the protests and their display of strength and solidarity.
Mr Htein Lin subsequently delved into his artwork revolving the position of women in Burmese society.
‘Skirting the Issue’ which explores underlying discriminatory attitudes towards women in Burmese society, is a commentary on the Burmese superstition that men should not go under a pole or rope, where women are hang-drying their htamein (skirts/sarong) as it can make the man lose his power (hpoun). In this artwork, Mr Htein Lin makes use of old htamein (skirt/sarong) to create portraits of the women and features their opinions on the superstitions regarding the longyi. He also created an art installation of a woman’s head made out of longyis, where men were challenged to enter to see if they believed in this superstition. Mr Htein Lin remarked that that this artwork elicited the most response in his art career and became heavily politicised as some read it as support for Aung San Suu Qi’s government. Aung San Suu Kyi is Myanmar’s foremost state leader and a woman. Mr Htein Lin then incorporated the harsh comments he received online to complete his exhibit.
Questions centred around the relationship between artists and the state in Myanmar. Mr Htein Lin expanded on his relationship with the prison guard who helped to sneak in paint and suggested that it showed the plurality of resistance among the public and public servants and the dignity of human experience. On the current state of artistic freedom in Myanmar, Mr Htein Lin listed examples where students continue to be dealt with harshly when they expressed their opinions. Mr Htein Lin left us with wise words that freedom of expression cannot be demanded from others and that artists can achieve it by actively using it.