Censored Burmese contemporary art comes to light – in pictures

A seminal exhibition offers an unprecedented glimpse of Burmese paintings created under the shadow of successive military regimes. 

“Banned in Burma: Painting Under Censorship” is the first exhibition to systematically survey censored and hitherto unseen Burmese paintings produced during years of military rule. Art Radar explores the important show.

Than Htay, 'Waiting', 2010, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Than Htay, ‘Waiting’, 2010, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Twenty artists from various backgrounds are featured in the exhibition entitled “Banned in Burma: Painting under Censorship”. Showcasing fifty works spanning six decades, the exhibition marks the first time that censored work from Myanmar is shown to the public, and documents facets of art and life previously unseen by the rest of the world.

The exhibition, co-curated by Melissa Carlson and Ian Holliday, is on view at the Nock Art Foundation in Hong Kong from 22 October to 9 November 2014 and will move to the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre from 29 November to 1 December 2014.

Myint San Myint, 'Lady First, Safety First', 2008, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Myint San Myint, ‘Lady First, Safety First’, 2008, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Art in a pariah state 

From 1962 to 2011, Myanmar, also known as Burma, was ruled by a military junta that wielded absolute power over all aspects of society and violently suppressed dissent. During those years, the country suffered extreme poverty and one of the worst human rights records in the world. Unsurprisingly, art was rigorously yet randomly censored. The exhibition press release explains:

From 1964 to 2013, a Censorship Board […] determined permissible content for art exhibitions based on a 1964 legal code. […] The ambiguous wording of the code resulted in an ad hoc application of the prohibitions by censors, an assortment of governmental officials with little, if any, training in the visual arts who rotated […] every six months to one year.

Shein, 'Untitled', 2010, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Shein, ‘Untitled’, 2010, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Paintings deemed inappropriate were immediately removed from public display. Political art was banned and nudes routinely censored on moral grounds. In addition, the fickle tastes of the Censorship Board forbade experimental forms of abstraction as well as excessive use of black, white and red. The press release explains:

… black and white because of the contrasting pictures of doom and purity they conveyed; and red because of its common association with blood and revolution, and after 1988, its link with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

Maung Theid Dhi, 'Untitled' (exhibited in 1974 as 'Untitled'; exhibited in 1976 as  'The Hunters'), 1973, self-portrait on teak. Image courtesy the artist.

Maung Theid Dhi, ‘Untitled’ (exhibited in 1974 as ‘Untitled’; exhibited in 1976 as
‘The Hunters’), 1973, self-portrait on teak. Image courtesy the artist.

If works were considered to be a criticism of the state, artists were subject to imprisonment and/or torture. This was the case for Maung Theid Dhi, whose self-portrait is one of the oldest pieces in the show, as well as its centrepiece. Originally, a chain was wound through the three holes puncturing the teak canvas to represent life under oppression. Censors ripped the chain off, but the artist showed the work again in 1976 under a different title, using more chains. Co-curator Melissa Carlson said to The South China Morning Post that the act got him imprisoned for ten days.

Painting in the shadows

Under the strict censorship regime, artists responded in different ways. The paintings in “Banned in Burma” can be divided into three general groups:

  • Paintings that were officially censored by the Board;
  • Paintings that escaped scrutiny by using euphemisms or codes to outwit censors;
  • Paintings that were never submitted for public exhibition and therefore never subject to censorship.
Aung Khaing, 'Women', 1971, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Aung Khaing, ‘Women’, 1971, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Aung Khaing, for example, experienced censorship throughout his entire career for his use of abstract forms and nudity. In 1984, all 120 paintings from his solo show at Yangon’s Scott Market were banned.

San Minn, 'Convocation', 2003, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

San Minn, ‘Convocation’, 2003, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

San Minn, 'Civilization', 2003, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

San Minn, ‘Civilization’, 2003, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

San Minn’s Convocation (2003) is an example of an overtly political painting that was censored. The work pays tribute to generations of student protestors, many of whom were killed during a 1962 violent crackdown led by General Ne Win. For Civilization (2003), another of San Minn’s works, censors banned the painting because shrewd officials noticed that a rhino wore a traditional shirt often donned by government staff.

Sandar Khine, 'Untitled', 2009, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Sandar Khine, ‘Untitled’, 2009, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Sandar Khine managed to escape censorship by strategically draping black cloth across some of her signature corpulent female nudes. This enabled her paintings to be displayed in public in 2012.

Chan Aye, 'Remembrance of the Saffron Revolution',  2011, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Chan Aye, ‘Remembrance of the Saffron Revolution’, 2011, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Aung Myint, 'Red Stains', 2011, paper and acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Aung Myint, ‘Red Stains’, 2011, paper and acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

In contrast, Chan Aye’s Remembrance of the Saffron Revolution (2011) is debuting in the current exhibition three years after he completed the painting. Due to his use of the colour red and the combination of blood with Buddhist imagery, Chan kept it in the privacy of his home for safety. Similarly, Aung Myint’s Red Stains (2011), a tribute to monks who perished in the Saffron Revolution, has until now remained hidden in his private gallery for fear of censorship and persecution.

Unearthing lost art 

Curator Melissa Carlson tells Art Radar that the exhibition emerged from years of research starting from when she was in graduate school at Johns Hopkins University – SAIS in Washington DC. Carlson wrote a paper on the mechanics of the censorship of painting in Myanmar and then spent the summer of 2013 in Yangon interviewing artists. She recalls:

It was during this time, as artists […] pulled their censored paintings from dusty studios and warehouses, that I began to realise the immediate need to document these paintings. […] Some of the older generation artists have amazing tales of negotiating with the censors in order to hang their works.

Myint Soe, 'Stop Corporate Terrorism, Mandalay', 2012, acrylic on cotton sheet plus video of performance. Image courtesy the artist.

Myint Soe, ‘Stop Corporate Terrorism, Mandalay’, 2012, acrylic on cotton sheet plus video of performance. Image courtesy the artist.

Ian Holliday, the exhibition’s other curator, is an expert in Burmese politics as well as an avid collector of Burmese art. He tells Art Radar that he deeply treasures the memorable experiences interacting with the artists:

We […] had the pleasure not only of collecting some of their precious censored works (on loan), but also of meeting with the artists in their studios and homes and hearing their censorship stories. One artist, Soe Naing, rummaged through a heap of papers on the floor of his studio […] and managed to find an official licence for a public art show issued in the 1990s – on the flip side were the hand-written titles he was required by the censors to use if he wanted his show to go ahead. This sort of thing was really fun.

It was not all fun, however; Carlson tells Art Radar that the exhibition was a “real labour of love”. The main challenge was the limited budget: the difficulty of securing an affordable exhibition venue aside, the dedicated curators had to self-fund trips to Yangon, sleep on the floor of friends’ apartments and hand-carry all the pieces from Yangon over the course of several flights.

Aung Khaing, 'Three Women', 1971, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Aung Khaing, ‘Three Women’, 1971, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

The road to artistic freedom

Since 2011, Burmese artists supposedly enjoy a more relaxed political climate under the quasi-civilian government. However, Holliday reveals to Art Radar that there is still a degree of official monitoring of artists, as well as ad hoc censorship. The South China Morning Post reports that nudes and any distortion of the Buddha still come under scrutiny, and the general attitude towards reform is still a cynical skepticism. Artist Shein was quoted as saying that:

Seeing these paintings in Hong Kong, people might think Myanmar is now in a better situation and quite open, but inside it really isn’t. They might see these censored paintings and think things have changed here, but in truth we don’t know what will happen here with censorship.

Nevertheless, the show is an undeniably important milestone on the road to political and artistic freedom. Not only does it represent a gateway for Burmese artists to gain exposure in the international art scene, but it also offers crucial insight into a previously obscure slice of art history.

Sandar Khine, 'Untitled', 2013, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Sandar Khine, ‘Untitled’, 2013, acrylic on canvas. Image courtesy the artist.

Choosing Hong Kong

For Carlson and Holliday, the choice of Hong Kong as the first exhibition venue for “Banned in Burma” was born largely out of convenience: they both live in Hong Kong. However, as Artnet remarks, in light of the recent protests rocking Hong Kong, the Burmese art show’s timing and location could not be more poignant. Carlson was quoted as saying that:

Artists in Burma never stopped asking important questions about the future of their nation. […] We think this is a message that will resonate with Hong Kong people, particularly now.

Going forward, Carlson tells Art Radar that she would love to see these works exhibited around the world. “Every society should be able to take a peek at how life was like for Burmese artists living under a strict state censorship system,” she says. Meanwhile, Holliday expressed a wish to take the exhibition back to Myanmar itself.

Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Myanmar/Burmese artists, censorship of art, political art, historical art, painting, events in Hong Kong

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