BURMESE PAINTING AND MODERN ART

BURMESE PAINTING

Painting is called “Panchi” in Myanmar. Myanmar traditional’s painting developed with the religion of Buddhism in the Pagan Region. Most of Myanmar's paintings date back to the Pagan period, which began in earnest in the A.D. 11th century. There are also works from the Konbaung period (which ended in the 19th century) and the Ava period. During the Mandalay period in the 19th century many beautiful paintings were done in folding books called purapaik and on canvas. Many paintings have been copied and collected by the Archaeological Department of Myanmar.

The history of Myanmar's painting can be traced back to pre-historic times. Stone age paintings have been discovered in Pyadalin cave in the Taunggyi district of Shan State. Nine wall paintings, and brown-colored sketches have been found there at a height of about 10 to 11 feet on the cave walls. Some wall paintings are found in “Lawka Hmankin” cave at Saging hill in Central Myanmar. This cave was built in the Inwa period of the Nyaung Yan Dynasty between the 13th and 16th centuries. On the cave’s ceilings are wall painting depicting the life of Lord Buddha, the jatakas and floral designs. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Eleventh 11th century Pagan mural paintings have strong Indian influence and floral patterns are the main elements of the paintings. The Pagan period artists excelled in line drawing, and popular techniques included fresco, oil painting and tempera painting. Most of the paintings depict the 550 Jatakas (Buddha stories). Inwa paintings began depicting the social life of the people, and only red and green paints were mainly used in the murals. [Source: Myanmar.cm]

In early Konebaung era (17th century), the paintings marked the transition from Myanmar traditional flat painting to western styles of perspective and tones. Blue color was generously used and the paintings recorded the lifestyles, entertainment and scene of that era. In the Yadanabone era in Mandalay in the 19th century, western style painting began to penetrate, but traditional line sketches remained intact. During the colonial era western styles and modern techniques were introduced and became popular. Contemporary art also flourished in the 20th century, and now Myanmar contemporary art is mainly impressionistic. In ancient times palm leaf painting and parchment painting flourished. Some of these paintings can be found intact in some pagodas and monasteries and at the National Museum of Myanmar.

Burmese Mural Paintings

In the 11th century, Myanmar traditional painting was derived from India culture in Pagan and floral patterns were the feature of these murals. The development of mural painting coincided with the strengthening of the Buddhist religion during this era, thus religious themes are showcased. There were no mural paintings depicting the social lives of the people though the lifestyles of the Pagan people can be understood through these paintings. In the 17th century during the Kone Baung Era, the Pagan mural paintings moved away from the parla or Indian influence and developed into more of a Myanmar style. [Source: Myanmar.cm ///]

Mural paintings from the Inwa era, between the 16th and 17th centuries, can be found in the Shwesigon pagoda, Mee Pauk pagoda, and in caves at the Phoewun Hills in the Monywa district. Paintings of this era mark the end of Myanmar traditional flat painting. In the Cularmani pagoda, the upper parts of the mural paintings depict stories and the lower parts depict the social life of people living in the Inwa era. Only red and green paints were used in Inwa mural paintings. ///

Mural paintings from the earlier Konnaung era in the 17th century can be found in the Aungmyay Lawka pagoda, the Yokesone Illustrated pagoda, and the Pyathat pagoda of Khin Mon village, Chaung 00 Township, Monywa. These paintings can also be found at the Ananda Brick monastery of Pagan. The paintings mark the transition from Myanmar traditional flat painting to western styles of perspective and tones. Blue was generously used and the paintings recorded the life styles, entertainment and scenery of that era. ///

Mural painting of Amarapura era can be found in Taungthaman Kyauktawgyi pagoda, Amarapura and Shwesaryan Phocalar pagoda. Scenes in these paintings were not drawn in perspective, but in a bird's eye view. Most of these paintings depicted the life styles and social activities of this era and includes activities such as paying homage to the pagoda, keeping Sabbath, pilgrims traveling in carts and boats, people giving alms to monks, and children playing. Blue was the dominant color in these paintings, but incomplete paintings show line sketches in red. ///

The most famous artist of in the Yatanabon Era in the 19th century is U Kyar Nyunt who served as a royal artist to King Mindon. After his death, his son Saya Sa was made a royal painter by King Thibaw. However Saya Sa became blind, and Saya Chon, a pupil of U Kyar Nyunt, was employed as the royal artist together with two Italian artists. The influence of the two Italian artists meant that the western style of painting began to penetrate Myanmar traditional style. But, compared to other eras, paintings during the Yatanabon Era were predominantly Myanmar influenced. Two remarkable paints produced by Saya Chon were "Royal ceremony of ploughing," and "Partawmu (Dethronement)."

Up until the Yadanarbon era, Myanmar artists blended their own paints and made their brushes themselves. Cloth and paper were used for painting as well as parchment. A factory producing indigo had been established in the Konbaung era, so blue was generously used. Although the western style began to penetrate Myanmar paintings, traditional line sketches still remained intact. But annexation by the British in 1885, the traditional Myanmar style of painting started to decline.

Palm Leaf Painting and Parabeik (Parchment) Painting in Myanmar

In old days, Myanmar people used palm leaves as writing paper, and they wrote with a pointed style on the strips of a palm leaf, which could be coiled. Ancient Myanmar artists of Myanmar only drew sketches on the palm leaves. There were four kinds of painting, which formed the basic principles adopted by the artists of ancient Pagan. They are kanote (floral curlicues), nari (portrait drawing of men), gaza (style of depicting elephants, horses, etc.), Kapi (technique of drawing apes and the like.)

During the colonial period and the second world war, a great number of pagodas, stupas, monastries and rest house, along with the palm-leaf sketches, were destroyed by fire or in air-raids. But in some monasteries palm leave drawings and parchment paintings have remained intact. Some are now displayed in the National Museum of Myanmar. The most famous of are thirty one palm-leaf paintings called lokakunchur. There are also fifteen Myanmar palm-leaf and parchment paintings on exhibit in the British Museum in London, showcasing drawings of Vutsandra Jataka and Heaven.

Traditional painting on paper made from tree bark or bamboo pulp is known as parabaik painting. The earliest known example dates back to the eighteenth century. Pigments were made of tempera, with gold and silver inks used for the costumes of nobles and deities. The paintings also formed folded pages in books. Initially these paintings depicted religious scenes, court scenes, or astrological charts, medicines, tattoo designs, and sexual techniques, and the painters were itinerant artists employed by the court. In the nineteenth century, the court in Mandalay employed full-time artists, and a system of apprenticeship was put in place. Among the new styles of painting that emerged after the fall of the monarchy were paintings of happy families sold to the newly rich. Traditional painting declined in the 1920s as local patrons and artists became more interested in European styles. A revival of interest in Burmese themes took place after the 1962 military takeover. The new regime held an annual painting exhibition to promote select painters. The exhibitions ended in 1988, but the military regime allowed the fine arts school to remain open. Most painters today are dependent on sales through a handful of private galleries that cater largely to resident expatriates. The themes of newer paintings continue to be Burmese, especially religious paintings and landscapes.

Parchment painting, which began during the Ava period (1364-1555), also known as the Inwa period, reached its zenith in the Konebaung era. Parchment painting is regarded as the second stage of traditional Myanmar Art. The paintings are the forerunner to books because they generally recorded important events of the royal court in words or pictures. They are therefore also called chronicle paintings.

There were two kinds of parchment, black and white. White parchment had thirty two pages and the paintings included renderings of elephant and horses, Jatakas, life stories of Buddha, maps and ground plans, flowers, fish, martial arts, military maneuvers, and royal ceremonies. The most famous parchment painting, Royal Excursion drawn by U Kyar Nyunt is no longer in Myanmar and is exhibited in the National Museum of England. Parchment paintings of great events were drawn on pieces of paper and folded as a single parchment. The entire scene can be viewed when the parchment paintings are spread out, and such paintings are considered records of royal life.

See Separate Article on Buddhist Art facts and details.com

Pagan Painting (A.D. 1044 to 1287)

On wall paintings during the Pagan period (1044 to 1287), Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “The interior decoration of Pagan temples consisted almost entirely of wall paintings that covered the ceiling vaults as well as all of the interior walls. Painted designs were fitted into a framework of architectural moldings that could be executed three-dimensionally in stucco or two-dimensionally in trompe l’oeil painting. More than 387 Pagan Period temples preserve some trace of their once colorful interiors. The style of wall paintings at Pagan was derived from the Pala style first developed in India. A major characteristic of this style is the outlining of all forms with a black or red line and the absence of shading and modeling when coloring the enclosed areas.” [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

To make the wall paintings at Pagan: “The walls were first prepared with several coatings of fine mud or stucco that were let thoroughly dry before receiving the multi-colored hues produced from natural colorants. Scenes were created from preliminary drawings whereas stencils were probably used for motifs that were repeated. =

“The program of paintings within a temple usually included a Bodhi tree realistically painted above the brick and stucco image of the Buddha that served to frame and emphasize this central feature. On the wall on either side of the three-dimensional Buddha image were painted images of the Buddha’s attendants and disciples, often Mogallana and Sariputta. A frieze encircling the remaining three walls of the major shrine might be composed of large tear-shaped Bodhi leaves or kirtthimukha masks. Below this often appear images of the Twenty-eight Buddhas of the Past, while lower down are painted scenes of the Buddhas life, usually the Eight Great Events. Elsewhere within the temple, often on the walls of the entrance hall, appear small squares each representing one of the 550 former lives of the Buddha referred to as Jataka Tales. Below each square the chapter number and name of each Jataka was written in Mon or Old Burmese so that each scene is easily identified. The decorative programs in a few temples include scenes from the history of Buddhism, the Buddha’s footprints and horoscope, or a Buddhist cosmological map. The ceiling vaults were most often covered with small, identical, endlessly repeated motifs of small seated Buddhas, a motif known as The Thousand Buddhas. =

“Paintings on cloth from the Pagan Period were unknown until in 1984 when a fragment was found wrapped around the arm of a stucco figure in temple number 315. Eventually, with expert restoration, some 30 fragments have been identified as belonging to the same painting that depicts a Jataka tale in long horizontal registers that include captions. The style of painting is exactly the same as the wall paintings found in the Lokateikpan and the Myinkaba-Kubyaukgyi and therefore can be dated to around 1113 AD. Thus, this is the earliest known narrative scroll in the Pala style in existence. All Pala style paintings in India have disappeared due to the more demanding climate. =

Ava Painting

On art in the Ava period (1364-1555), also known as the Inwa period, Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “ Ava Paintings continued the major religious themes and subject matter of the Pagan Period while the settings were given a local context that included contemporary Burmese architecture, dress, hair-styles, and jewelry as well as local flora and fauna. Scenes from everyday life included not only court life and palace scenes but commoners involved in daily activities such as fishing, plowing or making ceramic pots. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

There was a change in format away from small, neatly divided panels to long registers that allowed for the inclusion of more figures, particularly of subordinate characters or figures unrelated to the narrative. The last ten Jatakas were most favored and were presented more completely in great detail, at times a single Jataka covering an entire wall. =

New pigments were introduced such as bright reds, yellows, blues but especially turquoise that produced richer more vivid paintings as seen in the Tilawkaguru Meditation caves (1672) in Sagaing and the Ananda Brick Monastery (Ananda Ot Kyaung) and the U Pali Ordination Hall (Thein) in Pagan. =

Mandalay Painting and Prints

During the Konbaung Period (1752-1885), Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma,” the number of foreigners who visited Burma increased and several artists and architects settled in the capital cities. These individuals as well as the increased availability of printed materials, encouraged the use of western perspective and the adoption of western modes of painting such as landscape and portraiture that were intended for the home instead of the temple or monastery. The paintings in the entrance halls of the Taungthaman Kyauktawgyi are a good example of the adoption of western perspective in creating a scene that fills the wall from horizon to zenith of the heavens. Cast shadows and distant haziness are used to enhance the illusion of reality. The stupas in the wall paintings are meant to be recoginizable pictures of stupas within the kingdom that the king had built or refurbished. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“British Officers who served in Burma during the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826) often made sketches of the scenery and countryside as part of the Search for the Picturesque, a pursuit then fashionable in England. The best drawings were reproduced in England as aquatint prints, many of which were then sent back to Southeast Asia to those who had requested them. Two print series consisting of twenty eight views chronicle the progress of the war and, remarkably, only seven scenes depict military action, considering that the artists were British officers. These prints constitute the first series of naturalistic landscapes in the history of Burma and, even if they are not absolutely accurate in a photographic sense, the prints are the first large-scale, colored views of the Burmese landscape. =

“The twenty-eight aquatints were executed from drawings made "on the spot" by two officers of the British Expeditionary Force in Burma, Captain James Kershaw and Lieutenant Joseph Moore. Although little is known about these officers, their work is exemplary of the fashionable pursuit of the picturesque. In an historical sense these prints do not accurately reflect the realities of a disastrous war which resulted from the combatants having only a vague notion of the aims and abilities of each other. However, the prints are of aesthetic interest because the circumstances of their origin are a direct outgrowth of the enormous interests in the picturesque that existed at this time, both in England and her colonies. =

The dichotomy seen here between picturesque fantasy and the reality of the war is a direct result of the strong British commitment to the Cult of the Picturesque which was one aspect of the Romantic Movement. Unfortunately, the failure to grapple with reality extended to the organization of the war which was undertaken from India and, because vital logistic information was lacking, resulted in heavy British losses from disease. The isolation of the Burmese Court at Ava about 300 miles inland helped create a false sense of security for the Burmese which increased their vulnerability to British military superiority, and thus assured a disastrous outcome to the war. =

Cult of the Picturesque in Mandalay Painting and Prints

Dr. Richard M. Cooler wrote in “The Art and Culture of Burma”: “Although the search for the picturesque in England and abroad was as much the province of the amateur as the professional artist, it was not to be causally approached. One writer, more insistent than most, on what might constitute a true rendition of the Picturesque was William Gilpin whose Three Essays on the Picturesque are specific as to the composition of landscape and subjects which will achieve the desired effect. His advice for sketching landscape proposed a clear delineation between the foreground, midground and background. [Source: “The Art and Culture of Burma,” Dr. Richard M. Cooler, Professor Emeritus Art History of Southeast Asia, Former Director, Center for Burma Studies =]

“The foreground might contain trees, tangled vegetation, and mossy stones, all loosely arranged to frame the midview. The midground in which increased depth recession creates expansive vistas holds the viewer’s interest with a variety of forms which delightfully distract the eye. The subtle tones that create these atmospheric vistas were readily produce by the aquatint technique. The misty blue-grey background halts the eye and teases the imagination about what view might lie beyond. The entire composition should be enlivened by variety, intricacy, and visual incident of imprecise detail. These effects may be further enhanced by changes in form, hue, and texture. Gilpin concludes that a figure or two may be introduced with propriety. The atmospheric power of the print was increased with the inclusion of turbulent skies, which gave the watercolorist and engraver an opportunity to increase the quality of "roughness" in a picture. =

The Cult of the Picturesque acknowledged that merely to enjoy a scene once was insufficient. Every attempt should be made to record the experience to renew it at leisure. Gilpin further suggests that even greater pleasure might result from contemplating the recorded scenes when relaxing at home, far from the wild and savage parts of nature. Paul Sanby introduced aquatint engraving to England in 1775. The new technique enabled much greater atmospheric variety to be achieved by insuring that the delicate shading of the fashionable watercolors be retained. This insured that even the multiple images of a plate would not decrease the beauty and subtlety of the original work. Theodore Fielding described the technique as an art which is so beautiful, yet so difficult, so peculiarly adapted to those subjects requiring broad flat tints of extreme delicacy or excessive depth, so capable of expressing light foliage on a dark background and the only style of engraving which can faithfully render the touch of the artist’s brush. Although the outcome of the war is now a matter of historical fact, the prints continue to excite the senses - and those prints that most inventively embody the formula for the picturesque still yield the greatest satisfaction. =

Burmese Colonial Period Art (1885-1945)

During the colonial era, an artist noted for his great work was U Saya Aye. He studied art under the close guidance of Saya Chon, the last royal artist of the Konebaung dynasty during the reign of King Thibaw. When Saya Aye became famous for his traditional sketches, one of his contemporaries was U Maung Gyi, a sailor who studied art in Europe and who had more of a western style. He was excellent in transparent water color. He was the first Myanmar artist able to exhibit his works abroad and whose paintings were printed and sold in Germany. Due to influence of U Maung Gyi, western style art began to spread in Mandalay. In the later years of colonialism, two artists who were able to handle the water color skillfully were U Thant (1896-1982), and Saya Saung (1898-1952) who became known as prince of watercolor. [Source: Myanmar.cm ///]

Saya Saung was awarded a gold medal in 1967 for his outstanding work, and his remarkable art captured international attention. Captain Thomas Heath of the Allied Army bought ten of Saya Saung's paintings and wrote an article titled of The Renaissance of Myanmar Watercolor Paintings in an English periodical during the Second World War. ///

Several other artists also became popular during colonial period, including U Ban Nyan (1897-1945), who introduced impressionism to Myanmar. He studied art at the Yellow Gate Art School in England. He developed an innovative style in Myanmar oil painting with strong brush strokes. U Ba Zaw (1891-1943) also became renowned for both traditional style and western style paintings. In 1927 the government sent him to study at the Royal Institute of Art in England. ///

Another painter who exuded fine workmanship was U Saw Maung. His paintings of King Kosala's sixteen point dreams still hang on the side walls of Kyauktawgyi pagoda. He was the son of artist Saya Aye who was widely known for his portraits and paintings about the life stories of Lord Buddha. U Ngwe Kaing (1901-1967) was the most zealous artist in the effort ton improve his workmanship. Contemporary art also flourished during the 20th century, and most Myanmar artists stood out because of their modern works. Among them was U Paw Oo Thet who combined traditional and modern techniques in his works. ///

Modern Period of Impressionist-Style Myanmar Art

The contemporary U Lun Gywe is Myanmar's foremost and the most respected impressionist. His teacher was U Than Han who studied under U Ba Nyan, the artist who introduced realism and impressionism to Myanmar in the 1930s. U Lun Gywe is considered the master of drawing in both for realism and contemporary arts. Among the younger generation, Min Wae Aung is one of the moist successful and internationally recognized artists. His traditionalized contemporary artworks are often exhibited in London, Singapore and other neighboring countries.[Source: Myanmar.cm ///]

Another modern impressionist is U Myo Khin from Mandalay. His strokes are very bold and strong yet he expresses delicate feelings in a meaningful paintings. He is the owner of the Mandalay Htan Yeik Nyo gallery where top artists meet and share their love of arts. His Htan Yeik Nyo gallery holds monthly exhibitions every year and many visitors can explore Myanmar fine art. Myanmar artists are now endeavoring to work in many diverse forms and techniques. Some by use various media such as bottle art, decorated straw art and candle arts without violating realism or Myanmar traditional techniques. ///

Myanmar's Young Avant-Garde Artists and Activists

Joshua Hammer wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “The New Zero Gallery and Art Studio looks out over a scruffy street of coconut palms, noodle stalls and cybercafés in Yangon (Rangoon), the capital of Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country formerly known as Burma. The two-story space is filled with easels, dripping brushes and half-finished canvases covered with swirls of paint. A framed photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was released from seven years of house arrest this past November, provides the only hint of the gallery’s political sympathies. [Source: Joshua Hammer, Smithsonian magazine, March 2011 \\//]

“An assistant with spiky, dyed orange hair leads me upstairs to a loft space, where half a dozen young men and women are smoking and drinking coffee. They tell me they’re planning an “underground” performance for the coming week. Yangon’s tiny avant-garde community has been putting on secret exhibitions in spaces hidden throughout this decrepit city—in violation of the censorship laws that require every piece of art to be vetted for subversive content by a panel of “experts.” “We have to be extremely cautious,” says Zoncy, a diminutive 24-year-old woman who paints at the studio. “We are always aware of the danger of spies.” \\//

“Because their work is not considered overtly political, Zoncy and a few other New Zero artists have been allowed to travel abroad. In the past two years, she has visited Thailand, Japan and Indonesia on artistic fellowships—and come away with an exhilarating sense of freedom that has permeated her art. On a computer, she shows me videos she made for a recent government-sanctioned exhibition. One shows a young boy playing cymbals on a sidewalk beside a plastic doll’s decapitated head. “One censor said [the head] might be seen as symbolizing Aung San Suu Kyi and demanded that I blot out the image of the head,” Zoncy said. (She decided to withdraw the video.) Another video consists of a montage of dogs, cats, gerbils and other animals pacing around in cages. The symbolism is hard to miss. “They did not allow this to be presented at all,” she says. \\//

The founder and director of the New Zero Gallery is a ponytailed man named Ay Ko, who is dressed on this day in jeans, sandals and a University of California football T-shirt. Ay Ko, 47, spent four years in a Myanmar prison following a student uprising in August 1988. After he was released, he turned to making political art—challenging the regime in subtle ways, communicating his defiance to a small group of like-minded artists, students and political progressives. “We are always walking on a tightrope here,” he told me in painstaking English. “The government is looking at us all the time. We [celebrate] the open mind, we organize the young generation, and they don’t like it.” Many of Ay Ko’s friends and colleagues, as well as two siblings, have left Myanmar. “I don’t want to live in an abroad country,” he says. “My history is here.” \\//

“Ma Ei is perhaps the most creative and daring of the avant-garde artists. To visit her in Yangon, I walked up seven dingy flights of stairs to a tiny apartment where I found a waif-like woman of 32 sorting through a dozen large canvases. Ma Ei’s unlikely journey began one day in 2008, she told me, after she was obliged to submit canvases from her first exhibit—five colorful abstract oil paintings—to the censorship board. “It made me angry,” she said in the halting English she picked up watching American movies on pirated DVDs. “This was my own work, my own feelings, so why should I need permission to show them? Then the anger just started to come out in my work.” \\//

“Since then, Ma Ei has mounted some 20 exhibitions in Yangon galleries—invariably sneaking messages about repression, environmental despoliation, gender prejudice and poverty into her work. “I am a good liar,” she boasted, laughing. “And the censors are too stupid to understand my art.” Ma Ei set out for me a series of disturbing photographic self-portraits printed on large canvases, including one that portrays her cradling her own decapitated head. Another work, part of an exhibit called “What Is My Next Life?” showed Ma Ei trapped in a giant spider’s web. The censors questioned her about it. “I told them it was about Buddhism, and about the whole world being a prison. They let it go.” Her most recent show, “Women for Sale,” consisted of a dozen large photographs showing her own body tightly swaddled in layers and layers of plastic wrap, a critique, she said, of Myanmar’s male-dominated society. “My message is, ‘I am a woman, and I am treated here like a commodity.’ Women in Burma are stuck at the second level, far below men.” \\//

Ma Ei’s closest encounter with the government involved an artwork that, she says, had no political content whatsoever: abstract swirls of black, red and blue that, at a distance, looked vaguely like the number eight. Censors accused her of alluding to the notorious pro-democracy uprising that erupted on August 8, 1988, and went on for five weeks. “It was unintentional,” she says. “Finally they said that it was OK, but I had to argue with them.” She has come to expect confrontation, she says. “I am one of the only artists in Burma who dares to show my feelings to the people.” \\//

Htein Lin’s Political Prisoner Art

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “A color photograph of the Burmese artist Htein Lin on the day of his release from prison shows him stooped and wan, looking easily 20 years older than his real age. His face is scrawny, and in one of his thin hands he holds a white plastic bag filled with the remnants of more than six years in a cell. He stands next to a uniformed military man who ran the jail. On his face is a jubilant grin. Behind the smile was a well kept, high-wire secret. Mr.Htein Lin, a political prisoner accused of planning opposition activities, had managed to smuggle out from prison more than 300 paintings and 1,000 illustrations on paper.[Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, August 13, 2007 ++]

“The most grisly of Mr. Htein Lin's works, titled "Six Fingers," shows a line of thin men with missing fingers and toes. These were the men whose families were too poor to provide the $50 to $100 bribes that could stop prisoners from being sent to hard labor camps in malarial swamps and stone quarries. "The only way for the poorer prisoners to escape the camps was to have an 'accident,' " said Mr. Htein Lin, now 41 and a resident of London. This usually involved asking another prisoner to use a hoe or a spade from the prison garden to cut off two or three fingers and then show the injuries to the doctors. Other works, many on the white sarongs that serve as prison uniforms in Myanmar, show gruesome depictions of hunger and sickness. The artworks are on display for the first time at Asia House, a cultural center in central London. ++

The Economist reported: “Many of the paintings show snapshots of prison life: convicts crouched in subservient squats for inspections, or curled morosely in tiny cells. One, made for a friend who pined for a pretty view, depicts a sunset. Another, painted at the turn of the millennium, presents an imaginary firework display. [Source: The Economist, August 2, 2007]

Htein Lin’s Life

The Economist reported: “The life story of Mr Htein Lin mirrors the recent history of Burma, as Myanmar was known before the army changed its name. In 1988, while still at university and dabbling in painting, he helped to organise the political protests that brought down the dictatorial regime of the day. When the generals subsequently reasserted themselves, he fled to the jungle, along with many other idealistic students. [Source: The Economist, August 2, 2007 ><]

“The life story of Mr Htein Lin mirrors the recent history of Burma, as Myanmar was known before the army changed its name. In 1988, while still at university and dabbling in painting, he helped to organise the political protests that brought down the dictatorial regime of the day. When the generals subsequently reasserted themselves, he fled to the jungle, along with many other idealistic students. ><

“But disillusionment set in. The army overran the rebels' camps, neighbouring governments refused them refuge and the pressures of fear, hunger and disease bred discord. Some of Mr Htein Lin's comrades were executed by other rebels on suspicion of spying for the junta; Mr Htein Lin himself was tortured. He escaped and, renouncing politics, returned to university. ><

Politics, however, soon caught up with him again: the secret police intercepted a letter that, unbeknownst to Mr Htein Lin, mentioned his name as a possible recruit to the opposition's cause. They came to his house in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, and hauled him off blindfolded. A military tribunal sentenced him to seven years in prison. He was released slightly early as part of a general amnesty in 2004.

One of Htein Lin’s good friends is Chaw Ei Thein, 38, a fellow artist who works from her art studio in Yangon, has created performance art in Japan and Taiwan, and had her paintings shown in Thailand. Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “The two met in law school in Yangon in 1990s, dropped plans to be lawyers and together created performance art that pushed the junta's limits on freedom of expression. They devised a performance in which they went into one of Yangon's busy outdoor markets, and sold small items - candy, ribbons - for tiny amounts of money. The performance was, of course, a commentary on the inflated prices under the current government. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, August 13, 2007 ++]

“Unexpectedly, they were arrested. But other more serious offenders suspected of planting bombs in the capital were being held at the same police station. The police confessed, Ms. Chaw Ei Thein said, that they could not cope with two cases at once. So the police told Mr. Htein Lin and Ms. Chaw Ei Thein to go free, but not before asking the two artists, in one of the Orwellian gestures that seem to permeate Burmese life, to help draw sketches of the bomb suspects. ++

How Htein Lin Managed to Paint in Prison

The Economist reported: “Throughout all this upheaval, Mr Htein Lin tried to keep painting. In the jungle, he was reduced to sketching in the sand with sticks. But the hardest place to pursue his calling was prison. Brushes, paints and paper were not allowed. At first, he used his fingers to spread dye from the prison factory over empty food packets. Gradually, however, he discovered that the lungyis (sarongs) of the prisoners' uniforms made the best canvases, while almost anything, from the lids of toothpaste tubes to the wheels of cigarette lighters could be used as brushes. Sometimes, he carved stencils out of bars of soap; at others, as in the self-portrait on display in the show, he applied his improvised paints with a syringe. His fellow prisoners kept an eye out for guards while he painted. In exchange, he put on “exhibitions” for them in his cell block, or painted scenes they requested. He hid his work in his bedroll and bribed friendly guards to smuggle it out. Once, a guard mistook a series of abstract paintings as blueprints for an escape attempt and destroyed them. [Source: The Economist, August 2, 2007 ><]

““Mr Htein Lin says that the constant struggle to obtain supplies and hide his work kept him busy and distracted. Moreover, in the face of these and other obstacles, simply continuing to paint seemed like an act of defiance. It is good that this small but dignified protest succeeded. And it is even better that the paintings have now been drawn to the attention of a much wider audience, thanks in part to the artist's recent marriage to a British diplomat. But perhaps it is also a little depressing to see how the daily struggle to lay his hands on this and that has subsumed Mr Htein Lin's grander ambitions—as it has for so many other Burmese. ><

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “For Mr. Htein Lin, a stint of seven months on death row, where he was sent for punishment for giving a political speech to inmates, turned out to be some of the most productive time. "It was a good chance to paint because the prison officers didn't come very often, they were too scared," he said. The death row prisoners, though tough and not the least bit aware of art, wanted to help him. "They wanted to participate in something. They felt, 'Before our death, we can help this artist.' " So the men on death row willingly gave him their sarongs that were their only form of dress and served as Mr. Htein Lin's staple canvas. The prisoners would then be left naked because sarongs were only issued every six months. "They would sit there naked, but they were very difficult to punish," Mr. Htein Lin said. So the prison guards would give in and issue new sarongs, ensuring a future supply for the clandestine artist. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, August 13, 2007 ++]

“In jail, life became a perpetual game of finding materials and befriending prison guards who would safely deliver his works to friends outside. He became close to a medical orderly, who was a poet and happy to supply him with the syringes that became his substitute paint brushes. With the little bit of money that his family brought him on visits, he bribed friendly prison guards to bring him oil paint. Sometimes they would buy him acrylic paint, sometimes house paint. One of his more ingenious methods was to use the plasticized white back of a photo of Buddha he was allowed to keep in his cell as a print plate. He would draw on the white coated surface and then put a cloth on top to transfer the image. Sometimes, there were near scrapes. After a prisoner tattled on Mr. Htein Lin, guards came marching into his cell hunting for his art. He had a painting on a sarong drying on his cell wall, he said, and held his breath as the guards lifted a corner of the sarong to peer behind, and then put it back in place. They had no idea the wet cloth was what they were looking for.” ++

Graffiti Artists Thrive in Reform-Era Myanmar

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “A television set with wings hovers on a wall in a murky Yangon sidestreet. "This was my first one," says Aung, 33, pointing proudly to an image he spray-painted last year to protest media censorship and now duplicated across Myanmar's commercial capital. "Media freedom is a big issue for me." Aung, who requested that his full name be withheld, belongs to a new generation of Yangon street artists whose often politically charged graffiti was almost unthinkable before Myanmar's recent burst of reforms. [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, August 26, 2012 }{]

“For decades Myanmar was a dictatorship where pervasive surveillance by military spies meant even "tagging", the quickly drawn signature found in graffiti worldwide, was too risky. That began to change when a semi-civilian government took power in March 2011. Emboldened, street artists are hitting Yangon to comment on everything from power shortages to money-laundering."Most young people just do tagging, which I don't like much," says Aung. "It has no ideology." His hero is the celebrated British activist Banksy, whose often tongue-in-cheek work takes aim at war, poverty and the snobbery of the art world. "I liked his political thinking," he says. "I realized I couldn't say everything I wanted through art, but I could say it through graffiti." }{

“Yangon's street artists have a vast canvas: the walls and shopfronts of a city of six million people. Those on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, a busy north-south route, are favored for their high visibility. Graffiti of an electrical socket trailing a wire, usually accompanied by the slogan "Plug the city", became common in Yangon in May, when frustration over chronic power shortages led to nationwide protests. "We didn't do it on the people's behalf, but because we ourselves were affected by the lack of electricity," says Twotwenty, 27, the pseudonym for a member of the collective Yangon Street Art, known by its plump, multicolored tag "YSA". A sketch of a washing-machine beside the initials of some well-known Myanmar banks refers to their suspected role in money-laundering.” }{

Targets of Yangon’s Graffiti Artists

Andrew R.C. Marshall of Reuters wrote: “Much of Yangon's graffiti is in English and the tone ranges from the profane - "Fuck snitches!" - to the polite: "Dear Mr President", reads a rambling plea for more electricity scrawled across a shopfront. "We need enough power ... with all due respect, Sir, we don't have that." "Zoo, or animal prison?" asks graffito on the wall of Yangon Zoological Garden, faintly recalling a message supposedly written by Banksy on London Zoo's penguin enclosure: "We're bored of fish." Aung's winged television set often appears with the slogan "FOR UR RIGHT." [Source: Andrew R.C. Marshall, Reuters, August 26, 2012 }{]

“Like critics of graffiti everywhere, ordinary residents of the already run-down city find it hard to distinguish between street art and vandalism. "Most people don't know much about this art and the owners of the places where we graffiti are still very sensitive about this," said Aung. So far, he says, no street artists have been jailed, although some have been briefly detained and let off with warnings. }{

“Graffiti artists also fought a paint war against an unpopular Yangon mayor. A brigadier general in the army, Aung Thein Linn won a seat for the junta-created Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in a fraudulent 2010 election. By way of protest, street artists defiantly tagged the wall of his official residence on Kaba Aye Pagoda Road. "All of us try to draw on this wall," says Aung. "It's painted over the next day." Aung Thein Linn was replaced as mayor last year by another retired brigadier-general, and the graffiti war on the residence wall continues. Another coveted target is the Yangon mansion of self-styled billionaire Tay Za, a U.S.-sanctioned business crony of the former junta. But its walls, which hide a fleet of top-end sports cars, remain unsullied. "A security guard is always watching," explains Aung. }{

“Some Yangon artists are now experimenting with stencils, a form popularized by Banksy. Aung recently sprayed an image of General Aung San, Myanmar's national hero and the father of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, on a ruling party signboard. It was quickly erased. Not every flat surface is fair game. There is an unwritten code to stay clear of schools, hospitals and religious buildings. The monastery-clogged streets around the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar's most revered Buddhist site, are conspicuously devoid of graffiti.” }{

Yangon Graffiti Ban

In December 2012, Associated Press reported: “Graffiti artists in Myanmar are unhappy with a new ban on their handiwork. Yangon city authorities imposed a ban prohibiting anyone from drawing on public buildings, roads and bridges, as well as in schools and parks. Authorities said anyone defying the ban would face an unspecified punishment. The graffiti artists said that the ban was not a surprise because authorities were copying regulations enacted in other countries. The artists also said they expected many to continue drawing, and urged authorities to provide a legal outlet for their work so they would not have to act illegally. [Source: AP, December 9, 2012 \\\]

"I cannot complain about the ban because many countries have such regulations. But the prohibition doesn't stop graffiti artists," said 19-year-old graffiti artist Arker Kyaw, who became a minor celebrity with his painting of President Barack Obama on the eve of his historic visit last month. "The psychology of young people is the urge to do something more when it is prohibited," Arker said. "Authorities should allow graffiti artists to paint in appropriate public spaces." \\\

“A graffiti artist who calls himself "twotwenty" also said he expected the ban. "But they can't stop what we are doing," he added. The 27-year-old artist is one of the four members of a group called Yangon Street Art that has been drawing graffiti since 2006. "It's fair that they impose a ban. But they (the authorities) should give some opportunity to us by providing some places for graffiti and street artists, like in other countries," said twotwenty. "If not, things will get worse." He said the number of graffiti and street artists in Yangon has been increasing steadily since 2010 and now stands at about 150, adding that he dreams of organizing an exhibition of their work. \\\

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.