Burmese artist Htein Lin opens up about creating art in prison, his battle against censorship and his anticipated return home to Myanmar.
Htein Lin is known for his narrative paintings depicting life as a political prisoner and for his politically charged performances. Art Radar caught up with Htein Lin to learn more about his artwork and those who inspired his creative vision.
From 1998 to 2004, Htein Lin lived as a political prisoner in Burma, incarcerated for his beliefs. Following his release the artist moved to London in 2006. To date, Htein Lin has participated in many events, including the Singapore Fringe Festival (2010) and the Venice Biennale (2007). His paintings hang in private collections throughout the world, as well as the United State’s embassy in Yangon.
Art Radar interviewed Htein Lin to discuss the events leading up to his prison term, his current nomination for the Absolut Art Award and his future endeavors as an advocate for the arts in prison.
Watch Htein Lin’s video work Homage to the Monks of Burma on YouTube.com
An artist’s life
Please tell us about your early work as an artist. What kinds of paintings did you make, what media did you typically use and who or what were your early influences?
In the early years, I used watercolour and acrylic to create abstract expression pieces. Burmese artist Bagyi Aung Soe (1923-1990) was one of my earliest influences. I consider Sitt Nyein Aye (b. 1956) my mentor.
At the time of your imprisonment in 1998, how much freedom of expression did artists have in Myanmar?
In Myanmar, there was a time when censorship policy was very strict. The policy was strongly connected with the political situation. If the political situation was tense, the censors were the most active. An officer of Military Intelligence in the Information Ministry was the head of the Censorship Board. [Before] every art exhibition we had to inform the Information Ministry Department and Art Association. They came to check before your opening and there was a briefing. You had to explain each painting. They asked [about] every painting, one by one. For example, let’s say I painted something like a lady sitting on the chair. That kind of women’s figure was the most sensitive issue. If the censors didn’t like it, they asked “Could you change this?” or “Why is your painting so red? Could you change it to orange? This painting is not allowed to look like that.”
When I was in prison, one of the prisoners tried to escape. At that time, the prison was really sensitive and had very strict discipline. We were not allowed to communicate with each other, we were not allowed to read books, get books or even to write. Paper, especially, was not allowed in the cell.
Did you notice any changes in the artists’ community after you were released in 2004?
After I was released I noticed lots [of changes]. Before I was arrested in 1998, only a few of us were doing performance art. After my release, young artists especially were quite interested in the performing arts and also there was more interest in contemporary art. At that time, a few people started using the internet. This helped artists have more exposure to study contemporary art, especially from the West.
Also, there were some exchange programmes. Some artists had a chance to participate in an international performance festival. Not me, other artists. At that time, the government was choosing the artists who could participate in that [ASEAN] Art Festival. The Art Association and, also the Information Ministry Department chose them. Artists like me, we were on a “black list,” so it was very difficult to participate.
Did some of the art galleries begin to open in 2004?
Yes. Some artists had their studios, which were also like real art galleries. The art market was getting better, but the censor was still very strict and not that different. They banned a lot of print media. In 2005, we did a street performance together with artist Chaw Ei Thein and the authorities arrested us. Five days we were in the intelligence office, being questioned. Very difficult, especially for those who were street performers.
Who was buying the art in Myanmar at this time?
People from outside [Myanmar] were buying the art. At that time, a few Burmese people started to realise and collected Burmese art. We had a few Burmese collectors. Also, an organisation of artists was able to visit Burma and organise a kind of performance art festival run by Jahko and Chu Chu Yan of Singapore.
Art and artists in contemporary society
What is the art scene like in Myanmar today?
Today, it is completely different for artists. We have no censor for print media. For visual art exhibitions, there are still some censors. Some artists [have stopped] inviting the censors from the Information Ministry, so now there are some art exhibitions without censorship but some art galleries keep inviting them. I am disappointed that they are still doing this.
There is a big change in the visual arts, lots of young artists are interested in painting political subjects like Aung San Suu Kyi and General Aung San. Recently lots of artists are doing her [Aung San Suu Kyi] portrait in different styles.
Also, a few artists have just been released. They are former political prisoners like me. They are also talking about their experience in prison and in the visual arts. Some artists paint about stopping the Irrawaddy Myitsone Dam Project and also about the Letpadaung Mountain Copper Mine Project. Lots of artists participate in this kind of campaign. They are raising awareness about who is suffering in the village or those who have been removed from their village by the Chinese copper mine.
I see lots of political art. We have very good documentary filmmakers. They made the documentary called Burma VJ about the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and another about Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Now you see a lot of artists in documentary filmmaking.
Burmese comedy performances, like Anyeint, are being allowed again. In March 2013, comedians organized the biggest Anyeint performance in Yangon, directly criticising the recent government and also the democracy leaders. This is a big change. Before these comedians were not allowed to get on the stage.
Is there a difference between being an artist and a political activist? Which are you? Has this line blurred over time or has it changed since your move to the U.K.?
My understanding is that the political activist is directing the push [for change]. The artist is not direct like that. We use the indirect way. As you know, I left Yangon in 2006. Between 2007 and 2008, many of my friends including [comedian] Zarganar, [journalist] Zaw Thet Htwe and [poet] Saw Wei were arrested again. So I have to speak up for their release. That’s why sometimes I have to perform as an activist and collaborate with organisations that really care about political prisoners. I do both. Actually, I just want to be an artist.
Does art have an important role in contemporary society?
Artists have a very important role for balance in societies. Sometimes it is very difficult to speak directly but art can be used in an indirect way to understand each other. They are important now more than ever in contemporary society. Globally artists can communicate across cultures and countries. We use another language.
In regards to your paintings, has the subject matter changed over time? I mean have the themes in your artworks changed from the time you were young, to the time you were in prison, to present day, your life in London?
When I was in prison, the meaning of the art was different. In prison, art was like when you go underwater, you need a regulator. It is essential. Art is like that. In Burma, the prison conditions were really, really awful. We had to live in solitary confinement more than 22 hours per day. We were not allowed to communicate with each other. It was very difficult to survive at that time and [not be] depressed. [Having] only political belief was not enough, that’s why even political prisoners looked for ways to write poems, sing songs, read poets.
That’s why lots of political prisoners became poets and song writers. Sometimes we are also storytelling. This helps a lot. That’s why I respond to these kinds of situations in my paintings to show I have to also take responsibility as an artist. It’s not easy. Lots of difficulty in there [prison] but it made my life as a prisoner meaningful. That’s why my painting in prison is very important.
After prison, I moved here [London]. This is a cosmopolitan city. There are different cultures and [it’s] very diverse. [There is] also a lot happening in contemporary art. I am quite interested in contemporary art and a lot of media, like camera, digital art and video art. Before prison I did not have a camera, nor a computer. Now, there are tools that are very interesting and new to me. It’s exciting for me to learn how to use new media to expand my practice and express my concepts. It’s a new art form for me.
Now in Burma, nearly everybody has a mobile phone and they have a digital camera. There are many young artists who are using graphic arts and digital art. They are quite interested in new art forms. I shared some of these new types of media when I was in Yangon last time. I did an artist’s talk about an introduction to conceptual art in Yangon and Mandalay.
Does creativity have a spiritual aspect? Is creativity connected to a person’s spiritual core?
I feel that everybody has their own creativity. Some people are not using their creativity to express themselves and others become artists; other people use their creativity in their business, their profession. As a prisoner, we must use creativity to survive in prison. We have no other way.
Please tell Art Radar about performance art in Myanmar.
We started performance art in 1996. At that time, most of the performance artists expressed how they felt in constrained situations. We were not allowed to speak out. We were not free. This was the main message [we tried] to express. After I was released from prison, we did a street performance and the performance focused on inflation. The topics, the issues are changing. Now some artists deal with issues like the environment or feminism in their performance. The new generation are more focused on public engagement.
Were you among the first artists to expose the Burmese public to performance art?
I was a pioneer. At that time, our contemporary artist’s group had no exposure. We had no internet. We met each other every Sunday at an art gallery called INYA. The owner of the gallery was the artist Aung Myint. He was able to get some art books and art magazines. This was how our art group studied modern and contemporary art. Aung Myint showed a book to me and said, “Look. This is performance art.”
At that time I was working as a contemporary artist and as a comedy actor with Zarganar because I needed to earn money. I spent this money on my art projects as we had no grants, government funding or support. That’s why artists had to work to support themselves. My friend said, “You are a working visual artist and you have acting skills as a comedian/actor. Why don’t you combine these two forms?” I got to thinking; this is a very good way. You are being [both] the artist and the artwork. As a visual artist, you always had to face censorship. This was the best way to do art without censorship. We’d invite the artist group, and at the end of the exhibition, we had a celebration party. We’d then shut the doors and have a performance.
Creating art with syringes and homemade glue
Tell us about the artwork that you created while in prison. What materials did you use? What did you find surprising about making your art in prison?
First, I used packing paper from tea and coffee mixes. Then, I used plastic bags and later, the cotton prison uniform. It was very difficult to get paper, so that’s why I used [old] prison uniforms. We were not even allowed to use toilet paper because they didn’t want us to communicate with each other. All political prisoners were using old uniforms to make little pieces for our daily cleaning. That’s why we always had old uniforms and pieces of cloth. I realised that maybe I should try and use it [for art].
The difficulty was the paint. For me, it was a little bit better than for other prisoners because some of the prison guards knew me as a comedian and actor. They were quite friendly with me. Sometimes when they were on duty, they came to me and said “Last night I was at the cinema and saw you in a film.” So I said, “I am not only an actor, I am also an artist. If you could give me your pad, I could draw your picture or paint on the duty schedule book”. They said, “Oh, you are a very good drawer” and I replied, “If you brought me some paint, I would show you how beautifully I could paint”. They brought some paint to me. The problem was that they were really scared to bring me a brush. Because of this, I had to figure out how I could paint. I found a syringe from the hospital and got an old cigarette lighter. I took the wheel off the lighter and it became a roller. The most difficult [part] was after I finished painting, I had to think about how could I hide it? Sometimes I dug in the corner of my cell, with a little sharp knife. I made a little hole and I put it there. Sometimes, I put it into the pillow or another bag.
I had to deal with a little bribery. I had to wait until a prison guard who was very friendly with me came. Even if I was in my cell, outside the warders were walking and could see me. [Every night], all the prisoners had to lie down after nine o’clock and were not allowed to sit in our cells. I had to wait until the guard who brought me the paint was on duty. Each shift was two hours, so you always have to paint everything during that shift. A guard would wake me up and say “Wake up! My duty has just started, it’s OK to paint. If someone comes in, I will give you a sign or sing a song and you can lay down and hide your work.”
I showed my painting to the prison guards or sometimes, my cellmate. I showed my work to only several people and promised not sell my work or do any exhibitions during this period. I did my work and then I made a deal with the warders: “Now I have ten paintings; this is slightly dangerous for you and me. If they come and search, this is not only a problem for me, but also for you. Can you smuggle it safely outside?”
The subject of the paintings were quite narrative. As a political prisoner, everyday I saw the same images, the same food, the same people, the same decay. Before [prison] I felt we were very limited, constrained outside. We had no freedom because of the government and the censorship policy. In there, I was completely free from the art market, and it made me free. Everyday was the same and I was able to go deep inside my mind. I saw that freedom is not outside the facility or the institution. Freedom is inside your mind. This was surprising to me.
What unusual media or materials did you use while in prison?
House paint, homemade glue. Sometimes I had different colours, sometimes only one or two colours. I had no choice. I had to use whatever I had.
What did your fellow prisoners and warders think of your artwork or performances?
I am very pleased that they kept working with me, especially the warders. In the beginning, I had to give a little money. After that, the prison warders were deeply involved. They understood that it was a very important project not only for me but also for our community of political prisoners. It was like a kind of document of history about what we saw while we were in prison. We had no other media, like a camera. My paintings were the only document of our daily life in prison.
Can you please explain the meaning behind the “Myaungmya School” series?
We call the prison our “school” because most of the political prisoners were students before the government put them there. We were studying hard to survive. That’s why I recall prison as our school. These abstract paintings show an iron bar, brick wall, tower and prison gate. When I was in Mandalay, I called it the Mandalay School.
Beyond prison, activism and artwork
Could you tell us about the artwork that you did in response to the Saffron Revolution?
At that time, many political prisoners were arrested again and faced long prison sentences like fifty or thirty years. Only a few people would speak out about these. I felt guilty. I left the country in 2006 and could not do anything. I had to respond through my art, showing this painting [Saffron Revolution] and raising awareness about the amazing bravery of the monk’s revolution. This is the best way to participate in these affairs.
What was the inspiration behind your series “How do you find …?”
After moving to London, people kept asking “How do you find London?” With my poor English, I could not understand their meaning. Sometimes I answered, “I am getting married, I live with my wife, etc.” And they would say, “No. What do you see?” I start thinking about my observations about western culture and city life. I put it all together in this series of paintings.
When did you begin working in 3D and video?
When I moved to London, it was quite difficult to communicate with the audience in my performance, so I started using a camera. I started to perform with a camera and use this in different ways, to use it like a new medium.
Please tell us about your installation The Scale of Justice (2010).
The theme of the festival [for which it was made] was “Art and Law”. The organisers of the [Singapore Fringe] festival knew me as a political prisoner, and that I was studying law at university, so that’s why they asked me to do an installation piece. At that time, all of the 88 Generation leaders were in prison. The situation was really tense. Art students from Singapore University wanted to volunteer but I wanted to ask Burmese living in Singapore to help me. There are a lot of Burmese who are working in Singapore. They made time when I needed help, and they came to the gallery. They showed their solidarity and strongly supported not only my work but also the project.
For “I C U Jest”, your 2012 exhibition about the quest for justice, can you please explain the connection between you as Judge and Jester?
I feel like we are living in a theatre. Everything is like a painting, it’s fake. I wrote about this kind of experience when I was in prison. [The Burmese authorities] have no idea they are just printing a story that is a lie. They are believing the lies from Military Intelligence. After five days, they put us in prison. This is like a theatre, like a performance.
In 2008, in London, I met [curator] Zasha Colah, who was quite interested in the political movement in Myanmar. Last year, for this special exhibition for the biennale in Kochi , she asked me to create the installation called I C U Jest. In this piece, I talk about how Sitt Nyein Aye and I met in a refugee camp. How the government put me in prison.
We put the story on video. I put out a typewriter and asked the audience to type [the word] “justice” on the typewriter. I changed the levers on the typewriter, so when they typed in the letters justice, the word that came out was “outrage”. I wanted the audience to understand injustice through this exhibit, to share the idea of injustice through contemporary art.
Can you tell us more about your nomination for the Absolut prize. Is it important for Burmese artists to win international contests?
Now people throughout the world are quite interested about what’s happening with the people in Burma. People explore and are interested in learning what Burma looks like, its culture, its beauty. This is a very important way for us to communicate with the outside world. Having global recognition helps others learn more about Burmese artists.
“We prisoners have creativity, just like other people…”
Can you tell us more about the Koestler Trust Prison Art Competition and how you became involved with it? What has it taught you about others? Yourself?
After 2007, I had a major exhibition at the Asia House art gallery about my prison project. After that, they asked me to help jury the Koestler Trust Prison Art Competition. It was surprising to see the understanding that they have here in the UK about prison and of crime. I am very happy to participate [in the Koestler Trust Competition]. It’s amazing. When I was in prison it was completely different. We were punished if we had a book, pen, paper. Here, society is promoting and encouraging the prisoners and offenders to create art. Completely different than what I saw in Burma.
I find that art is very important not only for prisons but also the condition of society. The prisoners who I met are changing their lives after they take part in artworks. That’s why I am very fortunate and happy to participate. We [prisoners] have creativity, just like other people.
Would you consider moving back to Myanmar?
My family and I have decided to move back to Burma at the end of July 2013. I would like to be present at this time of transition, and use my experience to develop my art practice and to work with local communities to bring art into their lives. I also want to create temporary and permanent exhibitions of prison art, and to write about and publish my experiences at university, in the 1988 movement, in the jungle and in jail.
- “It takes a village to raise a bug”: Cambodian performance artist Anida Yoeu Ali – Interview - March 2013 – Anida Yoeu Ali examines contemporary society with the Buddhist Bug Project
- “DEEP S.E.A.”: Why concept determines medium for Burmese artist Aung Ko - January 2013 – versatile artist Aung Ko responds to Myanmar’s current socio-political reality
- Outside influences seep into Myanmar art scene – New York Times – November 2011 – discover Yangon, Myanmar’s budding art capitol
- Unapologetically political Burmese artist Chaw Ei Thein discusses her country and her art: Asian Art Archive Interview – June 2010 – politics and the future of Burmese art
- Sothebys inaugural sale of contemporary Turkish art – video – 5 artists talk – February 2009 – conflict, war, imprisonment and sacrifice all go under the hammer
Subscribe to Art Radar for more news about prison art and interviews