Installation view of “Silent for a While: Contemporary Art from Myanmar” at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong, 2016. Courtesy 10 Chancery Lane Gallery. 

Silent for a While: Contemporary Art from Myanmar

10 Chancery Lane Gallery
Myanmar Hong Kong

The tides in Myanmar are changing. Since November of last year, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party—the National League for Democracy (NLD)—won a majority of parliamentary seats in the country’s first democratic election in 25 years, Myanmar has continued to steer itself in a new political direction. The country, and the rest of the world, anxiously await Aung San Suu Kyi’s candidate for the NLD president, who she is expected to announce at the end of March. As new voices come into power and Myanmar’s process of reform continues to evolve and gain traction, commentary and reflections that were once oppressed can now be shared and discussed. The exhibition “Silent for a While,” currently showing at Hong Kong’s 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, curated by Burmese performance artist Moe Satt, features seven artists from Myanmar who are taking this unique time in the country’s modern history to reflect upon the struggles its people have faced, and the challenges that remain, breaking through the silence that once dominated the nation.

Central to the show is Htein Lin’s floor installation made from 502 blocks of Shwe-Wah soap—originally a commodity that was exchanged on the black market under socialist-era Myanmar—which are arranged to resemble the shape of his native country. Each bar of soap is engraved with a similar design, and only upon closer look does one notice that the image carved within the blocks is of a crouched figure who appears to barely fit within his tight confines. These sculptural objects replicate the soap bar Htein Lin had carved while serving his seven-year sentence as a political prisoner in Myanmar, from 1998 to 2004. The original piece was smuggled out by a Red Cross representative, during a prison visit in 1999, as a means to communicate the harsh living conditions of the incarcerated. Hung on a clothes line nearby are four of Htein Lin’s paintings, also created during his stint in prison, for which he used contraband brushes to paint on uniforms that had belonged to inmates who had been executed. The vivid paintings depict either life behind bars, as seen in Shadow of Hope (1999), which illustrates a row of cage-like prison cells, or ideas that offer a form of escapism and hope, such as Father, Mother and Their Daughter (1999) and Biology of Art (1999), the latter of which depicts a burst of creative expression shown across an amalgamation of drawings.

HTEIN LIN, Soap Block (detail), 2015, installation of soap bars, 120 × 360 cm. Courtesy 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong. 

HTEIN LIN, Biology of Art, 1999, paint on prisoner’s clothes, 52 × 61 cm. Courtesy 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong. 

TUN WIN AUNG and WAH NU, White Piece #0178: The Mirror, 2015, acrylic and newspaper on canvas, 51.3 × 39 cm. Courtesy 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong. 

Artist-duo Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu also speak directly to Myanmar’s period of military dictatorship (1962–2011) through the six canvas works they present in this exhibition, which are a continuation “One Thousand Pieces (of White),” a painting series they started in 2009. For the artists, the ultimate goal of the project is to feature 1,000 items they encountered during the decades of Myanmar’s military rule that remain memorable to them, ranging from posters, signs and fables to newspapers and popular sayings. For the show at 10 Chancery Lane, the duo have sourced the front pages of local newspapers—including government-run daily papers such as Kyemon and New Light of Myanmar—as well as influential, but now-defunct newspapers such as The Botataung and The Working People’s Daily. Overlaid on canvas, only hints of the original newspaper are visible as Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu selectively wash over in white parts of the page they wish to obscure. In White Piece #0178: The Mirror (2015), for instance, one lone military officer is represented in full, while other images are covered up in white, save for some slivers of untouched surface. These strips come together to form a repetition of Burmese script that read “Kyemon,” the name of the newspaper. It is through this act of erasing information while highlighting others that the duo engages with key moments of Myanmar’s past, and is able to communicate a personalized view on these events.

ZUN EI PHYU, Hidden Face 1, 2015, cut paper, 60 × 90 cm. Courtesy 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong. 

While the exhibition’s mid-career artists trace back personal experiences and recollections in their works, emerging artist Zun Ei Phyu comments on issues presently facing the country. In her intricate, multi-layered paper cut-outs, Zun Ei Phyu raises concern for the millions of people who were affected by the major flood that devastated Myanmar last August, which particularly impacted residents of Chin State, many of whom were displaced. Hidden Face I (2015) shows a group of children playing with hula hoops, while in the background, homes are being toppled over and destroyed by a surging body of water. The initial joy that the viewer witnesses from the children’s play quickly dissipates and one is overcome by the harsh reality of the present circumstances in Myanmar. Zun Ei Phyu provides a stark reminder that many areas in the country still lack basic infrastructure—challenges that will need to be faced by the incoming government.

During this particular time of transition in Myanmar’s history, artists are speaking out on issues that were previously taboo, giving rise to a younger generation of artists who actively confront and engage with the sociopolitical concerns facing them today. It is this fluid interaction with the country’s past, present and future that has come to form much of the identity of Burmese art; and with that, it is the voice of the people who are now being heard, loud and clear.

“Silent for a While: Contemporary Art from Myanmar” is currently on view at 10 Chancery Lane Gallery, Hong Kong, until March 13, 2015. 

Sylvia Tsai is associate editor at ArtAsiaPacific.