ARTIST HTEIN Lin climbs onto a chair. “Can I get up here? Then people can see me,” he says to the assembled crowd. “That’s a technique I learned in 1988.”
He is in the south wing of Yangon’s Secretariat where, some 70 years ago, independence hero Bogyoke Aung San was assassinated. Htein Lin is referring to the political protests of 1988; many of the artists in his new exhibition participated in the protests and many of them, including Htein Lin, are former political prisoners.
“Seven Decades” is a seminal exhibition because it is the first time contemporary Myanmar artists have shown their work in the Secretariat, one of the country’s most historically important buildings.
The show is built around significant events: it opened on July 7, the anniversary of protests at Rangoon University campus in 1962, when the army killed an estimated 100 students and blew up the student union building.
In another nod to history, curator Htein Lin chose 19 artists because Aung San and eight others were assassinated on July 19, a date known in Myanmar as Martyrs’ Day. In the main exhibition hall, there is a chronology of events since independence. This includes events in the artists’ lives, writing them into a national history from which they have largely been excluded.
Myanmar’s artists have never reflected on history in this way before, because it has never been permitted, said Ms Nathalie Johnston, the founder of Myanm/Art, one of five members of the Pyinsa Rasa collective, which is supporting the show.
For this reason, she sees the exhibition as a watershed moment: it is the first time that major artists, including those considered political, have been given such a public platform in their own country to reflect openly, and without censorship, on the past.
An open secret
Htein Lin encouraged the 19 artists to recall their strongest memories of the last seven decades. The results are varied: some artists, such as Maung Di and San Minn, drew on their experiences as political prisoners. San Minn’s “In Isolation” is an architectural model of Insein Prison inside a cage, the bars of which are clasped by disembodied hands.
Other exhibits represent life in the socialist era: M.P.P. Ye Myint’s “Cancer 1,2,3,4” is a series of collages made from old lottery tickets and currency that he says left Myanmar’s people “in poverty and distress”. Pe Maung Same’s moving film about the work of his father, U Pe Thein, documents the often absurd difficulties cartoonists faced under the Ne Win government and the crippling impact of its policies on freedom of expression. Kyi Wynn and Sonny Nyein’s work looks even further back, to the assassination of Aung San and his fellow martyrs.
Read the full article by Clare Hammond on Frontier Myanmar.
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