It’s only mid-morning, and sitting in his simple studio in the shadow of some of Rangoon’s wealthiest mansions, Thein Soe is already exhausted.
Soe, not his real name, is bone-thin at 61, with smoke-yellowed hair, and a face like the Scream. An artist for most of his life, Soe was 16 when General Ne Win took power in Burma in a military coup. He’s since weathered the military junta’s 46 year-rule on his country, watching it crush pro-democracy demonstrations, turn one of the wealthiest Southeast Asian economies upside down and quash all freedom of expression.
He may be tired, but Soe is not a beaten man. From the studio in his quiet home, he still tries to capture the truths of his country in his paintings, installations and performance art. It’s not always a truth that’s savored by the government.
“I suffer,” he says, “It’s very difficult to show our inner sense, our expression. There are many censors for art here.”
Every painting hung publically in Burma must first pass the scrutiny of the Ministry of Information’s Censorship Board, and any sign of discontent, disloyalty to the government or unseemly political message can shut down the gallery and land an artist in jail. Just a month ago, the government shut down a gallery opening of Soe and his friends just before it began.
“They were sending us a message,” Soe says.
Soe is surrounded by canvas. The nature of his work has always been sensitive, under a government that is deeply suspicious of the arts. Many of the paintings that surround him, spilling from the walls to his desk to the floor, are potential prison sentences. Dozens of Burmese actors, comedians, writers and artists have spent time in jail for work that was considered critical of the government. After the brutal crackdown on the monk-led demonstrations last September, the arrests are more frequent.
“We paint what we suffer and what we feel,” Soe says of the group of 10-15 master artists that make up Burma’s underground political art movement. “The majority of this is sadness.”
Like many things in Burma, the art scene has been set back by the country’s isolation from the world. A lack of access to current art magazines, grinding poverty and the frequent closures of Rangoon’s art universities – breeding grounds for activism, the government fears – have worked to hold back the Burmese art scene. Most of the paintings sold in the few galleries of Burma are realist portrayals of monks and pagodas which a tourist can roll up as a memento of a trip to the country.
But among artists across the country, portraits of the detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi are bought and sold in secret and Burma’s underground political art movement is growing with every young artist joining the fold.
But traditional materials are expensive and hard to come by, and some youths are turning to performance art to speak their minds. One young man recently walked a busy street with a birdcage on his head, before dropping it and fleeing.
“I worry for them,” one of the older artists says. “What they are doing is very dangerous.”
“Artists have a responsibility to their people and country to express what happens,” says Moe Lwin - also not his real name - one of the leading contemporary sculptors in Burma. “(My work) is the record for my period; what I have seen and what I have suffered.”
When Lwin and his friends give an exhibition in Rangoon, they must apply for permission from the censorship board two weeks in advance. They offer snacks to the censors when they come to inspect and explain the meanings of the obscure works.
“Sometimes they are worried,” Lwin says. “If they give permission, they have responsibility for the show.”
For the artists, the dangers are not exaggerated. Burmese poet Saw Wai remains in jail after publishing a hidden message, that read “General Than Shwe is crazy with power” in what was ostensibly a love poem in a Rangoon daily in January. Lwin’s own brother spent 11 years in prison for his political poetry. His uncle died behind bars for his writing.
Still, despite the dangers, Lwin says his fellow artists and writers will persist. “We are not angry, we are sad,” he says. “All of these years have been wasted time.”
“Artists will express themselves whatever happens. We are not politicians, we are people. We feel like people, we suffer like people.”