For Gill Pattison, owner of the River Gallery, the fact that Htein Linn was able to speak publicly about his prison art is proof enough of the sea change that has occurred in the country over the past two years. “I couldn’t have contemplated that even six months ago,” the New Zealander tells me at her busy gallery, which sells pieces from some of the country’s best-known contemporary artists, including Zaw Win Pe, who evokes the colorful rolling landscapes of his native Shan State, and Kyee Myint Saw, renowned for his impressionist takes on rainy Yangon nights. The works range in price from a few hundred dol- lars to US$10,000. This is less than what top artists elsewhere in Southeast Asia would command, but the gap is beginning to narrow.
“The word is getting out about Myanmar artists,” Pattison says.
Yet for artists cloistered by first an isolationist socialist regime and then a military dictatorship, and in many cases also burdened by economic disadvantage, pushing the boundaries of creative freedom is not a straightforward proposition.
“Censors are much more lenient now,” says Suu Myint Thein, a former state art-school teacher from Mandalay who co-founded the nonprofit Mandalay Contemporary Art Centre in early 2012. “But we still have a 1964 law that means all exhibitions have to be inspected before they are held. And the reason that the rules are not changing faster is because not many artists are trying to change the system yet. Most are just content with what they do.”
Suu Myint Thein has had his run-ins with the law; in the 1980s, while painting in front of the ocher walls of Mandalay Palace, he and a fellow art student were beaten up by soldiers who suspected them of spying. Earlier this year, he was detained briefly by police after his street performance about the insurgency in Kachin State, which saw him wrap his body in blue sticky tape and draw the letter P—for peace—on the hands of passersby.
However, Suu Myint Thein is something of an exception. Most Burmese artists are grounded in realism and expressionism; technique is highly prized, perhaps more so than creativity or controversy.