Richie Htet; Frontline of Myanmar LGBT Art

The history of nude portraits repeats

Written by Maki Itasaka / Translated by AURA ART

Richie Htet

Acrylic paintings that take on bright and popping colors. Blue grasslands overflow from frames on the gallery's white walls. The gallery looks like a stylish cafe, but you can tell from the penis depicted in most of the works that this is not just a pop art exhibition. Richie Htet's first solo exhibition, "A Chauk", is Myanmar's first LGBT art exhibition.

Called "A Chauk"

In Yangon, a LGBT festival "Yangon Pride" was held for about two weeks from January 18, 2020. "A Chauk", a solo exhibition by an artist Richie Htet, who has announced that he is a gay, was held as part of this event. "A Chauk" means "Strange" in Burmese and is used to ridicule men with feminine gestures. It is synonymous with a "queer" in English.

  • (Left) Adam (Right) Eve
    29.7×41. 9cm

Richie was born in 1995 into a wealthy family with doctors and businessmen's parents. He says he had noticed himself as gay since his childhood.
"Even when I watched Disney movies, I was always emotionally involved in the heroines."
Richie's English is fluent and elegant, with a straightened posture and long fingers reminding me a ballet dancer. He went to London at the age of 16 with his parents' desire to give him the best education. He went to a fashion college at the London University of the Arts, and after graduation, he worked as a stylist and an art director in a women's fashion magazine in Yangon.
"At first I contributed illustrations to a magazine while I was working, but my desire to work as an artist has grown and grown."
When he expressed his feeling to Nathalie Johnston , the owner curator of "Myanm/art", Myanmar's pioneering gallery and who had been known him for a long time, she gave his a good push so that he began to draw. It's been only a couple of months since he start creating a big piece like the one he had at this exhibition.

David Hockney's influence

After listening to all his life history, I asked him what I had been in my mind about since I knew his work.
"Do you like David Hockney, don't you?"
Richie, who had been talking cool so far, nodded keenly at that moment, with a smile like a floral bloom. "Yes, that's right. I love it." He gave some other names of influential painters to him, include George Quaintance, Tom of Finland, Tom Wesselman as a pop-art flagmen, and Allen Jones, who contributed significantly to establishing the image of today's macho-gay.
All of them are Western artists who was active from the 1950s to the 60s.
The former two are leading artists who created LGBT art during the time when Europe and the United States were still conservative and were trying to exclude LGBT from their societies. The latter two are artists who use pop art to express dry eroticism. All of them represent the times.
Establishing LGBT art and poping eroticism in Myanmar. His vision, at just starting point as an artist, seems clear. I noticed then. I wonder if this exhibition itself is a reconstruction of the history of nude portraits in the history of Western art.

  • Fairy
    29.7 x 41. 9cm

Art works colored by Mythology and Allegory

In the past, nude portraits in Western art were depicted as one scene in the mythical world that incarnate the gods. "La Maja desnuda (Translated in English as "Naked Maja")" by Goya, exhibited in 1800, broke that traditions. The woman in this painting is a living person who is not a goddess, and Goya was the first person in the history of art to theme the naked body as an absolute beauty that excludes mythology and allegory. Many regard "La Maja desnuda" as the beginning of modern art history, and since then numerous homage works have been produced.

Based on this, it suddenly becomes apparent to me that many of his works exhibited this time have motifs such as native Myanmar gods and western myths.

  • Dream of Flower Eating Demon

For example, from left to right, this painting features a flower-eating demon (an indigenous spirit in Myanmar), a flower-holding animist (in Myanmar, those animists are mostly a woman-dressed man), and a wicked smile guy talking to him. Richie explains:
"The flower-eating demon is a drag queen. They looks like a demon in this picture to the world. The animist with the flowers in his mouth never tries to talk about his sexuality. It's myself who talks to him. He says he doesn't shut his mouth."

  • Balus Si (Sleep Paralysis)

This is the "Balus Si (Sleep Paralysis)." In Myanmar, it is said that paralyzed during sleep is due to the demon covering over the body. In accordance with such a tradition, the nude portrait of men was fabled and expressed.

  • Dream of Chit Nat Tnar

  • The Dream of Golden Deer (The Satyr)

In addition, the motif of the picture on the left is a Cupid, and picture on the right is the character of Greek mythology and the Indian epic poem "Ramayana". We can call those works as "before Maja", nude portraits indicates myth and gods.

Before and After Maja

And here, his "Maja" comes.

  • Do you have a Girlfriend?

This painting, which was exhibited using the entire walls of the gallery, is clearly an homage to "La Maja desnuda" and then to Eduard Manet's "Olympia". However, at the same time, a question came to me is why he focuses on Maja now, in the 21st century. Richie's answer was clear.
"I can go this far only in Myanmar now," Richie laughs. "It's still radical enough, and there's a possibility that the police will order for the cancellation of the exhibition. I hope they aren't enthusiastic about their work," Richie laughs, but it's also true that we can take it as just a joke in this country, where artists were jailed one after another until just a few years ago.

The future of Richie's nude portraits

In the art history of Europe and the US, nude portraits brought two directions after the Maja. One is the pursuit of human expression as a motif. Cubism and German expressionist painters used all kinds of craftsmanship to decompose the human body and reconstruct it as a work.
The other is politics. Nude portraits of men by feminist women painters and Berkeley L. Hendrix's problem-definition of the absence of black nude portraits are an extension of this, as is LGBT art by David Hockney and others.

  • A documentary coverage team from Europe and the US was coming to cover his solo exhibition

Due to the fact that LGBT art faces its own sexuality, there is a strong tendency to focus on nude portraits, and in the first place, art itself is the action to face to oneself, so that many artists expose their own naked bodies in the works. But, Ritchie only appears modestly as a supporting role in his work.
"I'm shy. But I don't know what's going to happen to me," he said frankly.
He is still at the start of his career as an artist. Perhaps as he gazes deeply into himself and explore, he may find himself in a nude portrait, or he may begin to decompose human bodies, or perhaps he may take political responsibility again, or he may fly in a completely different direction from the history of art in the past.
Currently, his works take a method of diluting eroticism with a garment called pop art, but today, the world's LGBT art goes beyond that, in a direction that does not hide eroticism.
This Richie Htet's exhibition, which would have visualized current Myanmar's LGBT situation, is a great hope for the next and subsequent LGBT artists, as well as his directions. Because, it would mean the true end of the era of suppression of expression, which was dominated by censorship in the history of art in Myanmar.

Editor: Maki Itasaka