Art of Freedom from Prison – Appealing for Democratization Even Now: ‘Memory of the Past’, A Museum that Has the Collection of Htein Lin’s work


Written by Yuki Kitazumi (Yangon-based journalist), Translated by AURA Art

Myanmar artists have been heavily at the mercy of the country's dark history. Sometimes art became a weapon to fight the military regime. One such artist is painter Htein Lin. His characteristic, which is highly regarded in Europe and the United States, is the art of resistance and represents one aspect of Myanmar's contemporary art. During his period in prison, he painted whilst hiding, and these paintings are on display at a museum on the outskirts of Yangon that showcases the history of political prisoners.  

Madness on the Fabric of Prisoner's Clothing

This is a small museum named 'Memory of the Past' and was established by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), consisting of former prisoners who were imprisoned for democratization and other activities, in order to remember their histories. Thousands of people have been arrested as political prisoners so far, and acts of abuse by guards have been revealed. While filled with heavy feelings, I suddenly noticed three paintings that were on display in an inconspicuous position. As soon as I noticed them, I asked the male guide, a former political prisoner about them, and he explained, “It is what Mr. Htein Lin painted while in prison.”

  • Htein Lin 's masterpiece in prison.

  • Former political prisoner as a guide explaining Htein Lin's paintings

One work is particularly well known out of all the works he painted in prison. It is said that he depicted on a canvas, a traditional cloth robe- a longyi, which was used as prisoner's attire. It is an unnaturally long vertical piece, probably because it was made of the only available cloth, and a person's face is depicted behind a 'locked grid'. It shows things that look like fruit-growing branches or ideas that gush out of the head, from the head to the outside of the lattice. A root-like one also extends on the lower part of the lattice. Does this work imply that his thoughts are free, even though he is in prison?

In addition, in the work titled 'Shadow in the Truth', the hands, pupils, mouth and nose are arranged separately in a pattern that emanates a feeling of captivity, whether it is an iron grid or a chain in the prison. Many of his works depict the suffering and madness of prison, and this piece of art seems to be one of them. Another painting depicts birds and fish that are inconveniently contained in squares like a lattice.

  • 'Shadow in the Truth' depicted in prison

Creative Activities Supported by a Large Number of Collaborators

Htein Lin, arrested for political crimes in 1998 and subsequently imprisoned, painted these paintings in his cell. They were created using only a few materials, such as his bare hands and lighters, needles for injection, and coffee powder, which were exchanged with the prison guard, or which could be obtained by offerings from outside, etc. The guards who would cooperate, hide the works, and pretended to dispose of excrement. They also brought the works out of the cell, and asked collaborators to smuggle them outside of the prison. It is said that this combination of efforts of a large number of secret collaborators made creative activities possible during his incarceration. He later said in an interview, "I couldn't bring a camera to the prison, but I thought I could record and express it if it was art." He also says that he was able to concentrate on creative activities in prison because he did not have to worry about any sale of his works or the critics reputation.

  • Works created using cloth from prisoner's clothing, coffee powder, etc.

He joined the democratization movement in 1988 and also worked as an artist, and was released in 2004 after about seven years of confined life as a prisoner. However, there was a time when he was forced to live on the streets in Yangon because he could not integrate back into society. Still, he was searching for a place to present his paintings from prison to the world. He met a British diplomat Vicky Bowman, a former British ambassador and now a representative of a civil society in Yangon, who later became his wife. With the help of Mrs. Bowman and others, his work was introduced internationally. Thus, the name of Htein Lin and the current situation of Myanmar's political prisoners became known to the world. His subsequent works often feature white women who are  thought to be modeled on Mrs. Bowman.

Role that Art Played in the Democratization Movement

In addition, Htein Lin has presented a work called 'A show of Hands', which are plaster shaped hands of political prisoners. He has recorded the shapes of hundreds of people's hands so far. These have been exhibited in the form of an installation in New York and other places. At the same time as he traced their hands, he also conducted interviews and sublimated his work, including cards describing what kind of life they lived. Some of this work can also be seen in this museum.

  • Part of Htein Lin's installation 'A Show of Hands'.

Not only Htein Lin, but also many people in Myanmar's contemporary history used art to contribute to democratic activities and human rights movements. Min Ko Naing, a democratic activist credited with 'next to Aung San Suu Kyi', is a poet and painter. Along with Htein Lin's work, the museum also exhibits Min Ko Naing's work on the themes of Buddhism and human minds. In addition, the museum records political prisoners who are still imprisoned for peaceful expressions and other activities, and as of October, 54 people were convicted and imprisoned.

One of them is a human rights film director Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi. His photographs are also exhibited at the museum. In addition, five members of the theater company 'Peacock Generation', which was alleged to have criticized the armed forces in a traditional drama called 'Thangyat', were convicted and imprisoned for a year at the end of October.

  • There are still artists in prison, such as movie directors and theater company members.

This museum strongly appeals to the tragic lives of political prisoners and the harshness of the current situation in Myanmar. Htein Lin's work, which is displayed within it, has a different and more powerful impact than when we viewed it in galleries and exhibitions. It is also the place where what the artist wanted to express is most clearly shown.

  • The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners Museum 'Memory of the Past'

Editor: Yuki Kitazumi