Myanmar’s outspoken artist Htein Lin and his wife Vicky Bowman, a British citizen who served as the UK’s ambassador to Burma from 2002 to 2006, have been arrested by the country’s military government. The couple were arrested yesterday on charges of violating immigration law, Reuters first reported and are being sent to Yangon’s notorious Insein Prison. Bowman, currently director of the Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, and Htein Lin have a 14-year-old daughter, who is said to be safe.
Speaking of Newspaper Art just two weeks ago, Htein Lin said: “No one living in Myanmar today feels safe. Life is very fragile, whoever you are.”
His words were in response to the junta’s execution of four pro-democracy leaders, announced on July 25, which shocked the country’s already troubled art community. Htein Lin was previously imprisoned from 1998 to 2004 under previous iterations of military rule; he said of hip-hop musician-turned-politician Phyo Zeya Thaw and Ko Jimmy – “two of the four who were executed” along with Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw – that “they were friends”. He added: “They were also fellow artists – musicians, painters, poets. Words cannot express how we feel now that they are gone.”
The execution of popular opposition figures escalates a violent crackdown by the Tatmadaw military leadership, headed by Min Aung Hlaing. As of August 17, the junta has killed at least 2,215 people in clashes with protesters and rebels since it took power from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1, 2021, according to the Political Prisoners’ Aid Association (Burma).
Artists at risk
While many Myanmar artists have left the country; others have remained despite the great danger. Survival requires self-censorship, with detention or worse a constant threat. Htein Lin identified poets Maung Yu Paing and Maung Thar Cho, director Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi and writer Than Myint Aung as among those currently detained. Internationally renowned performance and installation artist Moe Satt spent 95 days in Insein to join a protest in March 2021.
Exhibiting art in Myanmar has been challenging, although some spaces, including Myanm/art, have reopened. Bank transfers remain limited and sending art abroad is difficult, as funds from sales can support the resistance, Htein Lin said. Newspaper Art. “Visual artists still working in Myanmar are looking more at the local market,” he said, and attracting local buyers interested in tangible assets as Myanmar’s kyat depreciates.
Art is a “safe” investment because “the police and the army will not confiscate your canvases at a checkpoint, but they will seize your money. Although theft and crime are on the rise, thieves do not steal paintings,” said Htein Lin. “There is a growing secondary market for Myanmar art within the country, especially for deceased artists. We lost many senior artists in the last year, mainly due to Covid, including painters such as Tin Maung Oo, Ko Aw, Ba Htay Gyi, San Minn and Nyein Chan Su,” he added.
Myanmar’s contemporary art scene flourished after the country’s hard-won democratization in 2015, building on the underground cultural struggles of previous decades and beginning to connect with regional and global networks. But it has yet to consolidate beyond what Yangon-based artist and curator Aung Myat Htay calls “unmodified old school,” with an art infrastructure that “hasn’t changed much since its creation more than 60 years ago after independence. [from Britain in 1948]”.
The art of weaponry
The Burma Art Club first brought Western art to Myanmar in the 1910s and sent artists for education in the West. Successive military regimes have weaponized art as propaganda, says Aung Myat Htay, creating some of the worst art censorship in the world. Most importantly, Aung Myat Htay’s online School of Contemporary Art (SoCA) offers artists training and opportunities.
“We don’t see any of the deliberate political expressions that we’ve seen,” says Aung Myat Htay. “In the current situation, there is such a feeling that we can’t make a sound at all, and this can certainly be due to the dangerous atmosphere.”
However, Myanmar’s artists are finding artistic freedom and support abroad, from gallery shows across Asia to a major survey at the British Museum in London scheduled for autumn 2023. “In recent decades, there has been a growing interest in contemporary art from Myanmar,” says Louis H. Ho, an independent curator in Singapore.
Hosted by Htein Lin’s show, Another springearlier this year at Richard Koh Fine Art (RKFA) in Singapore, and is planning to display drawings by Myanmar artist Maung Day at the Yeo Workshop booth at the upcoming Art SG fair (12-15 January 2023).
Ho says: “The latest tenth edition of the Asia-Pacific Triennale [4 December 2021 to 25 April] featured Myanmar performance collective 3AM, while past editions have included Htein Lin and Soe Yu Nwe. Min Thein Sung was on the line-up of the sixth edition of the Singapore Biennale in 2019. Htein Lin’s soap carvings, made while incarcerated, were a highlight of the 2016 Singapore Biennale, which Ho co-curated.
“Private galleries across the region have also proven to be important allies, such as RKFA and Intersections Gallery in Singapore, 10 Chancery Lane in Hong Kong and Thavibu Art Advisory in Bangkok,” adds Ho. Hong Kong’s Karin Weber Gallery has presented several Myanmar projects, most recently a solo show by Aung Myint, who co-founded the Inya Art Gallery in 1989, one of Myanmar’s first contemporary art spaces (a military crackdown on student protesters in 1988 was a decisive moment) .
Htein Lin remained somewhat hopeful when talking to him Newspaper Art two weeks ago. “I hope the rest of the world will help Myanmar artists develop their practice and stay connected with us,” he said, calling for young artists to be especially considered for exhibitions and residencies. In the long term, he said, “we always hope that the situation in Myanmar will improve. We have no choice, otherwise we will be destroyed by despair.”