A Call for Help, A Plead for Freedom: Art and Expression in Burma
By Maris Gelman
In a land where freedom is a concept and civil rights are non-existent, Myanmar, also known by its previous name of Burma, is one of the last places expected to harbor out-spoken citizens, let alone artists. Set in the middle of South Asia, Myanmar is the sight of the longest civil war. Since 1948, when the Burmese regained power over their colonizers, the British, the country has been at war with itself. The emergence of a junta organization in 1962, which was previously called the Burma Army, but is now officially called the Tatmadaw or the Myanmar Military, the country has been ruled by a strict dictatorship. This dictatorship is known to be involved with shady decision-making. Some of these suspect decisions are such as imprisoning the democratically elected, Nobel Peace Prize winning Aung San Suu Kyi, who posed a threat to the Tatmadaw’s harsh governmental stances. They also secretly moved their capital from Yangon, a booming metropolis, to a mostly underdeveloped area called Naypyidaw. This was done without alerting any of the rest of the world, and even worse, the Tatmadaw did not inform their own citizens of this drastic change. The people of Myanmar are a muted people, they posses little power or freedom within their homeland. Those who do not align themselves with the military are given little rights, let alone the right for artistic expression. This leads me to Chaw Ei Thein, an artist who pushed the boundaries of the junta for her right to express herself through her art.
Within Myanmar, the military runs a very strict society. One could be arrested for being outspoken or even owning a book or magazine with anti-junta information in it. That is why Chaw Ei Thein is so astonishing. Her work, which eerily depicts her life as a Burmese citizen, is shown in her own gallery in Yangon. Beyond her gallery, Thein has shown her work all over Southeast Asia while simultaneously grabbing the attention of international media, such as The New York Times. Her art, which spans from painting on canvas to installations and performance art, displays themes of feeling trapped, oppressed, and even possibly raped by the culture and society she lives in. Her images and use of harsh colors depict a struggle to live within this cruel civilization. She shows the lack of freedom in her life and other’s lives in Myanmar with her art, using images of women’s struggling with men or being handcuffed. In her paintings, there is a common thread of confinement and being caged which shows her life sans freedom. She feels incarcerated in her own homeland, made to feel like a prisoner of this bloody war.
Thein sat down with a newspaper called the Irrawday to discuss her art in January 2009. The Irrawday covers news on Myanmar and Southeast Asia but is most likely highly edited or even banned in Myanmar based on its critical articles on the Burmese government. In this interview, of which the interviewer is not stated in the article, Chaw Ei Thein speaks frankly about her art, her life in Myanmar and the struggle for freedom. The interviewer asks Thein, “How do you assess the freedom of creating art in Burma?” She responds honestly when she says,
“To be truthful, there is no freedom to create art inside or outside the country. Some might think that they are free outside [Burma]. As for me, I don't feel free, no matter whether I am inside or outside. That is my problem. When I was outside the country for the first time, I thought that I was free and free to do anything. But fear rode piggyback. So before anybody censored our art, we censored ourselves. We always take into account that we have to return home.”
Interestingly, Thein’s art seems anything but censored. Its brutal honesty in its depiction of female Burmese life is anything but muted. Her work is vivid and powerful. Most of all, it captures the unrest of the Burmese people and the lack of freedom that the citizens live with daily.
Thein’s art speaks volumes about the state of life in Myanmar. It expresses the pain and fear that Burmese people constantly deal with. In her series, entitled He She I, II, III, she paints the nude bodies of both a male and female and depicts their interaction. In all three images, all very similar, there is a man standing behind a woman, holding the woman forcefully. These images, in uniform with the rest of her work, show the Burmese struggles with pain and domination. It portrays the woman being captured and tamed, kept as a prisoner in the man’s arms. Thein’s nude art, unlike other forms of nudes,
which usually depicts the beauty of the naked body, shows the unhealthy power dynamics between men and women. The woman in the series has a down-turned mouths, showing her unhappiness. The man’s snatching hands grab her chest as to control her body. Her art portrays the pain and suffering of an unheard people: the women of Myanmar.
While this bloody civil war continues, the rights and liberties of the citizens of Myanmar will remain virtually non-existent. Some people, such as Chaw Ei Thein, push these boundaries. By asserting her commentary on hardship and struggle, she is speaking out, in her own way, against the terror that the people of Myanmar have endured for over 60 years. As the dealings of the government become more corrupt, the intellectuals and artists of the country will, hopefully, continue to voice their opinions on this ongoing issue. Although the outcomes of speaking out against the government are harsh, it is important that the world can hear Myanmar’s victims shouting. The reality of Myanmar’s past, present and future is bleak. For it’s citizens, Myanmar feels like a living hell. Chaw Ei Thein is breaking free from the oppression by expressing herself. Hopefully, these efforts lead to regaining freedom for herself and her people.