Feb 22 2021

Artists In Myanmar UniteĀ for Democracy

by Martine Ma, Yuna Lee

Artists at Artists Street For Civil Disobedience Movement in Yangon, organized by the Association of Myanmar Contemporary Art. Image via Facebook.

Since the coup d’état in Myanmar in early February, the country’s artists and art workers have been collaborating online and on the streets to support the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), which calls for the reinstatement of the democratically elected leaders who were forcibly detained.

On February 10, the Association of Myanmar Contemporary Art organized “Artists Street For Civil Disobedience Movement” at Pansodan Street in downtown Yangon, allowing artists to sell works to raise funds for CDM. Meanwhile, located next to the hotbed of protests near City Hall in Yangon, Kalasa Art Space is providing a sanctuary for the movement. Run by Su Htwe and Htoo Aung Kyaw, the couple told ArtAsiaPacific that “We are so worried to open our Kalasa art space because our son is only three months old and our art space is in the danger zone . . . But we cannot bear this situation,” and so they have made the decision to “give a space for all of our friends, artists, journalists, politicians who are participating in [the] protest and [offer] food and drinks for them.” The design team at Kalasa has also has created artworks for protestors to use as signboards and flyers.

Other artists have similarly created designs to be shared online for usage during protests, such as for posters, stickers, or t-shirts, despite internet blackouts brought about by the military to retain control. Muralist Bart Was Not Here created God and Prophets on Strike (2021), depicting caricatures of four religious leaders condemning the coup, which were made publicly available on February 17.

Many others have joined in, responding to the movement via their artworks. On the frontline is photographer Hkun Lat, who has been documenting the protest for Getty Images and his Instagram account since February 5. Likewise, artists Soe Yu Nwe and Richie Htet, represented by Myanm/art Gallery, have shared new works on their respective Instagram accounts. Nwe posted a drawing on February 5, depicting a peacock in captivity as a symbol of the current state of Myanmar’s democracy, capturing a hopeful yet “destabilized reality.” Htet’s work posted on February 17, captioned “Bitch Better Have My Democracy,” shows a woman adorned in historical armor defeating the man-eating humanoid Belu, dressed in the Tatmadaw military uniform. Additionally, the graffiti collective Writers Bench Myanmar posted a collaborative work on Facebook on February 13 titled The Nation is Ours, created in partnership with 58 graffiti artists to express their “individuality, solidarity, and disdain for inequality.” The work resonates with the surge of protest graffiti art in the early 2000s, during the military regime of Than Shwe.

One motif in particular has gained traction. Originally from the Hollywood Hunger Games (2012–15) film franchise, the three-finger salute, used throughout the movies as a gesture of defiance against authoritarian regimes, and later adopted during the 2020–21 anti-government protests in Thailand, has also been endorsed by Burmese protesters since the early days of the coup. The salute has been incorporated into numerous designs, including a collaborative artwork shared on Facebook by independent creative agency, Bridge, comprised of illustrations of the gesture by 51 Burmese artists. Also on Facebook, illustration account Theè Oo’s Artvenue features the salute amid pot-banging and phones, referencing protesting strategies.

Some Burmese artists and arts organizations have released statements in support of CDM. Artist Wah Nu posted a note of gratitude to protestors on February 15, saying that they are “All . . . worthy of respect,” while the all-female photography group Thuma Collective exclaimed that “Military Dictatorship must perish!” on February 2.

Martine Ma and Yuna Lee are editorial interns at ArtAsiaPacific.

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Opera Gallery ARNDT 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art Massimo de Carlo