Tribute to the Generation Z - Acrylic on Canvas

Myanmar’s artists
strive to survive

By Amy Lee and Nawar Nemeh for RFA
March 5, 2023

A gallery offers community art therapy, while exiled artists support civil resistance.

On a Monday morning two years ago, an art gallery owner in Yangon, Myanmar’s economic and cultural capital, was preparing the small, light-filled rooms of her space for visitors, an occasion of joy after months COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns.

However, a frantic telephone call from an acquaintance shattered the calm of that suddenly historic day: Feb. 1, 2021.


So Delicious! - Acrylic on Canvas

A military convoy had just raided the parliament complex in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, launching a coup that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, and imposing military rule on a country that has been run by soldiers for more than two-thirds of the 75 years since its independence from Britain.

“Oh my god,” thought the gallery owner, who spoke to Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity to protect her safety.

With one arm balancing her infant on her hip, she immediately got to work removing from the walls any artwork that could be perceived as politically sensitive or critical of the military, she recalled in an interview.


Power To The People (Yangon) - Acrylic on Canvas

The people of Myanmar have fostered a tradition of creative expression as a form of resistance through the country’s turbulent history of colonialism, harsh military rule and student-led protests.

In the early 2010s, as censorship eased across film, literature and other art forms, Burmese creatives began to challenge the boundaries of acceptable expression and later channeled this energy into creating protest art following the military takeover of February 2021.

Now, creatives across the country are fighting to defend the relative freedom of expression granted to them during Myanmar’s brief respite from military rule. Aung San Suu Kyi ruled the country from 2016 until the coup, which the military says was in response to electoral fraud during her landslide reelection win in 2020.

Following the twin crises of the military coup and the COVID-19 pandemic, Burmese artists are fighting to resist the regime and keep themselves and their communities afloat through art.

Art as they knew it

Nathalie Johnston, who founded the Myanm/art gallery in 2016, had no intentions of leaving Yangon or her position as gallery director when news of the coup broke.

Then the economy unraveled as widespread strikes against the military regime and a junta-imposed internet shutdown created a cash shortage, and Johnston was no longer able to withdraw money from her bank account. Living a normal life in Myanmar no longer was possible, so she returned home to the United States in April 2021.


Power to the People (Mandalay) - Acrylic on Canvas

Artists and the creative spaces that remain open inside the country are also feeling the squeeze of the post-coup economy.

One artist who had built a reputation and market value as an internationally recognized painter, was forced to underprice his paintings to sell enough to survive said the gallery owner, who has shown the artists’ work but declined to identify the artist to avoid identifying herself.

According to the gallery owner, some art collectors have capitalized on the situation to purchase Burmese art at a discount. In many cases, these collectors offer cash so the artist does not need to go through traditional banking, which is now controlled by the junta.


We protest days and also nights - Acrylic on Canvas

Other artists inside the country are using online anonymity to safely operate as both artists and activists.

One artist sells apolitical art on social media under one pseudonym, while sharing works of revolutionary art supporting the civil disobedience movement under a second pseudonym, said the gallery owner.

However, even anonymously expressing dissent inside the country comes with risk – the unnamed artist sells his political pieces through an international organization, which then quietly sends the money made from sales to the artist through in-country contacts.

“Everybody has pressure,” the gallery owner said. “Depending on the situation, we change the plan to live in Myanmar, or to leave.”

Art for revolution’s sake

A young Burmese artist known as Bart Was Not Here is one of the ones who left.

Early in his career, he printed mocking portraits of political leaders including former top military rulers Than Shwe and Ne Win and the ultranationalist monk Wirathu.

After the coup, he produced digital illustrations championing the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement that sprung up to oppose military rule and works commemorating fallen activists.


"Go to Heaven, Don’t Go to Work” - Bart Was Not Here

Bart Was Not Here fled Yangon after accepting a six-month artist residency at the Cité des Arts in Paris. When that ended, he decided to settle in New York City.

“I know some artists who joined the defense force in the jungles. I know people in the borders. I know people who, like me, got out safely and are now in Europe,” he said.

“Mostly, I feel for the ones who are in the jungle… because when you’re an artist, your job is to create things. And now, out of necessity, you have to destroy stuff,” he said.

Many of the young artists who used their work to advocate and organize against military rule in Myanmar have already left the country, and many landed in France, which mobilized to offer artists asylum, visas and learning opportunities after the coup, Johnston said.


Mournful Lament - Richie Htet

Painter Richie Htet held his first solo exhibition at Myanm/art in 2020, where his vibrant paintings of figures from Southeast Asian mythology challenged traditional constructs of gender and sexuality.

After the coup, he continued painting cultural figures and iconography, but now with the intent of critiquing the overwhelming brutality and exploitation by the Burmese armed forces.

Like Bart Was Not Here, Htet opted to take a residency in Paris shortly after the military takeover.

“Everything has been f***ed over…but I guess on a positive note, there is no better ‘f*** you’ than surviving each day,” he said in an interview with Mitigate Art shortly before leaving Yangon.


What is happening in Spring Revolution, Myanmar - Acrylic on Canvas

Art has been used by the Burmese people as far back as the early 1900s during British colonial rule to organize, advocate for change and resist abuses of power, a report by PEN America said.

Since the coup, citizens across Myanmar have carried on this tradition by using overt and covert symbols in creative works to denounce military rule.

Myanmar’s military rulers historically targeted artwork and creative expression perceived as opposing junta authorities, the gallery owner added.


Rally against Myanmar Junta - Watercolor on paper

During the 2007 Saffron Revolution, an uprising against military rule led by Buddhist monks, artists who featured red and yellow motifs in their paintings came under scrutiny by authorities, who believed such work was a sign of support for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

Myanmar’s younger generation–raised during a decade of relatively freer expression and the hope of a democratic future–have occupied the front lines of civil disobedience against the 2021 coup.

Young artists have used their art to engage politically and now feel pressure to leave their home country.


Emily Phyo - #Response365 - #339

“What really struck me, being there on Feb. 1 and thereafter, is how important Gen Z found imagery and art in terms of inspiring the revolution,” Johnston said.

“Bart is from a generation that was just sick of all the pretty paintings not telling the truth. But those [older and more traditional] artists were censored for a long time, so they had to survive with different imagery and different subject matter.”

Despite the departure of many young revolutionary artists, the coup has not led to the demise of the art scene inside Myanmar. Far from it, Johnston says.

“The coup changed the way people consume [art] and perhaps the importance that they put on it. They take it more seriously. The artist’s life is one of great importance to societies and cultures because it reflects our society back on itself. It illustrates feelings and large-scale movements to really stir emotions in people.”

Repair as a revolutionary act

As the widespread public protests in response to the military’s bloodshed and mass arrests subsided, the Yangon gallery owner realized that people needed a creative outlet to explore their thoughts, feelings and trauma.

With a background in both psychology and art, she began organizing free art therapy sessions open to the local community. The support of an international NGO allowed her to expand these sessions to accommodate increased interest and attendance as the country spiraled further into a political crisis.


They have guns but we have people (The way we defense) - Watercolor on paper

She says that slowly, the gallery has become a home.

“I cannot go anywhere often,” she said. “[Art therapy] is one of my charities, and it’s something I can do for the community as a mother.”

Along with a greater need for creative expression, she said the biggest surprise she’s noticed since the coup has been the resilience and adaptability of artists and locals across Myanmar.


Never lose hope - Watercolor on paper

“And that, I think, is a really necessary parallel to the times right now,” Johnston said concerning the apolitical art currently being shown in her gallery. “You have to keep existing, and you have to still be present and still be creative.”

Exhibitions selling art online to raise funds for Burmese artists and humanitarian needs in Myanmar have popped up in France, Thailand and Australia, among other countries.


We Must Win - Acrylic on Canvas

Some artists like Bart Was Not Here, who’ve left their lives and promising careers behind to start anew, say they are now hoping to find places they can belong, peers they can connect with and chances to challenge and be challenged creatively again.

“It’s a matter of, how are you going to take what I have and maybe give me opportunities to be a better version, for me to learn or for me to meet other artists or a community where I can grow.”

Arts by Burma Revolution Arts
Edited by Paul Eckert
Visual editing by H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson
Web page produced by Minh-Ha Le
Produced by Radio Free Asia
© 2023 RFA
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