The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Rangoon Art Show Provides Arresting Display
By HPYO WAI THA / THE IRRAWADDY Wednesday, March 14, 2012

RANGOON—Unlike any other exhibition, the Amnesty Prison Art Show 2012 has something different for the viewing public—a remarkable collection of clandestine works made during incarceration by ex-political prisoners.

Organized by the Former Political Prisoners Group, the exhibition held in Rangoon from March 9 to 15 presents a rare chance for these pictures to see the light of day for the first time.

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“You may not see these kinds of paintings in other places,” said Sanny, one of the organizers and an ex-political prisoner. “Most of the pictures were done secretly during their prison sentences, but some were created after their release.”

The exhibition boasts 110 paintings by 36 ex-political prisoners, including works by the 1988 student leaders Min Ko Naing, Htay Kywe , Jimmy and Pyone Cho. The oldest artist is now over 70 while the youngest are in their late 20s.

“We also want to raise public awareness regarding the fact that despite the president's latest amnesty, there are some political dissidents still locked in prisons,” said organizing team member Tun Win Nyein.

He added that any profit generated from the show will go to the welfare of political prisoners who are still behind bars and other charity services.

The works created during jail terms were the results of using myriad different mediums—pencils, ink, pastels, watercolors, oil paints, cotton threads and even colorful plastic bags—revealing conditions where inmates had to rely on any material within their reach to express their creativity.

Infamous for their brutal oppression of prisoners' rights, Burmese jails are far from a perfect studio for inmates to turn into artists. To simply kill time during their detention, some merely resumed their childhood hobby while others honed artistic skills acquired before their imprisonments.

A number of painters interviewed by The Irrawaddy said they were not even allowed to use a sheet of blank paper to make drawings during the 1990s. Brushes, pastels or watercolor paints were out of question at the time.

“In those days if you were caught with even a very small piece of newspaper cutting from a cheroot butt in hand, you would be severely beaten,” said Tun Win Nyein, an artist who spent nine years in prison for political activities.

Min Ko Naing recalled how he drew on the wall of his prison cell before eventually gaining access to canvas and paints in 2010.

“I used a spike or piece of charcoal or even smashed bricks, anything available, to draw pictures on the wall,” he said.

The old saying “where there's a will, there's a way” seems particularly true for artists behind bars with burning creativity.

"I used discarded colored plastic bags to make collages because there's nothing else available to make paintings,” said San Zaw Htew, a political dissident released from Taungoo Prison in January.

His sophisticated collages of a peacock and a portrait sketch of the Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu kyi drew great attention and praise from visitors at the exhibition. “It took me a few months to finish them,” he explains. “I did them in secret lest they were confiscated by the prison authorities.”

Another ex-political prisoner, Hlaing Win Swe, 37, said he did abstract illustrations in ink with an illicit ballpoint pen on any free space in magazines smuggled into his cell. He was incarcerated in Myaungmya Prison until his release in January.

But how much inmates could create depended solely on the prison authorities and how strictly they enforced regulations. Tun Win Nyein said some jails started to lift restrictions on political prisoners around 2008, but there was no consistency.

“In some prisons, political prisoners were allowed to read but not write as the jailers considered it to be a threat to prison security,” he said. “But both were OK in other prisons. If you are lucky enough to be in that kind of jail, you could do painting if you wished.”

Jimmy, one of the 88 Students Group leaders, said that later in his sentence his family could send drawing materials to him in Taunggyi Prison where he spent four years. After his release in January, he took 12 paintings home and five pastel works are now on display at the exhibition.

Most of the pictures are a reflection of conditions which the artists had to endure during their imprisonments, while others are inspired by missing loved ones.

At the exhibition venue on Saturday afternoon, a woman in her late 20s stood still, fixing her eyes at a painting that depicts a downcast figure in prison uniform squatting in his cell with a guard tower in the background.

A man a few meters away captured a pencil portrait of a young girl entitled “My Daughter” on his iPad. In one corner of the hall, a Buddhist monk was immersed in reading an inmate's personal correspondence that had been turned into a collage.

But, to some admirers' dismay, most of the paintings were not for sale as they represent a poignant time of the artists' lives, said Sanny.

Ian Holliday, a professor from Hong Kong University and a scholar on Burmese politics, was one of the audience members who wanted to buy a painting by Min Ko Naing.

“I fully understand if Min Ko Naing's works are not for sale. I just wanted to ask a polite question,” he told The Irrawaddy by email. “I did ask because I like his art.”

The organizers said they would sell duplicates of the paintings on the last day of the show to compensate those disappointed by the not-for-sale policy.

"I understand their feelings. Of course, creations during their prison terms mean a lot to the artists. This exhibition shows political activists who have endured hardships can also create art,” said a woman after offering to buy the Suu Kyi portrait collage.

Minutes later, she made a beeline to a large white vinyl board made available for any visitor to jot down their comments. She picked up a marker to wrote “some political prisoners are still inside.”

When asked if she would reveal her identity, she replied, “I can't tell you that much because I'm a government official.” And then she left the Amnesty Prison Art Show 2012 venue.

Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group |