Published April 9, 2008
It's midmorning, and Thein Soe is hard at work on a new canvas. A leader of Burma's underground art movement, he has been an artist for more than four decades.
Soe, 61, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of arrest, is bone-thin with a face that resembles Edvard Munch's expressionist painting, "The Scream." Over the years, he has weathered the junta's 46-year rule, watching the military run one of the wealthiest Southeast Asian economies into the ground, crush pro-democracy demonstrations and ban most freedom of expression.
"We paint what we suffer and what we feel," Soe said. "The majority of this is sadness."
While Soe has managed to stay out of jail, he says censors constantly monitor his work, searching for political messages. Each painting destined for public viewing must pass the scrutiny of the Ministry of Information's Censorship Board. Any perceived sign of government criticism can shut the exhibition down and land the artist and gallery owner in jail for several years.
In January, the government closed an exhibit that Soe and several other artists were scheduled to participate in. No explanation was given, but Soe believes the censors considered their works to be politically motivated.
"It's very difficult to show our inner sense, our expression," he said. "They were sending us a message."
Censorship part of life
In a country that human rights groups say has about 1,350 political prisoners, dozens of actors, comedians, writers and artists have been imprisoned for work deemed critical of the government. Extreme government censorship is as much a part of life in Burma as pagodas and Buddhism.
Reporters Without Borders' freedom index ranks Burma 164 out of 169 countries, ahead of only Cuba, Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. Censors at the Press Scrutiny and Registration Board use mirrors and magnifying glasses to find hidden messages in poems, novels, stories and ads, according to the BBC.
At his studio on a quiet Rangoon street, Soe says many of his paintings express Burmese reality. One depicts five streaks of blood across five rows of horrified faces, while another shows three blank heads, with eyes, ears and mouth crossed out in red, signifying the fear most Burmese feel regarding the military, he says. Such paintings would land him in jail if shown in public. They remain hidden while he ekes out a living selling his abstract paintings.
Moe Lwin, who also asked that his real name not be used, is a leading sculptor. His brother was jailed for writing a poem that criticized the government, and another relative was a member of the National League for Democracy, the political party founded by detained democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. He died in prison.
'Artists have a responsibility'
Lwin continues to sculpt political pieces in private. One depicts a sleeping mother with a thorn in her ribcage and a rifle barrel for a spine, which he says signifies the slow death of Burma, also known as Myanmar. The piece has since been smuggled out of the country and now sits in a Bangkok gallery.
"Artists have a responsibility to their people and country to express what happens," he said. "(My work) is what I have seen and what I have suffered."
After the brutal crackdown on the monk-led demonstrations in September, arrests have become more frequent, according to press reports.
In late January, poet Saw Wai was jailed for publishing a Valentine's Day poem in a weekly magazine called Love Journal about a brokenhearted man who had fallen in love with a fashion model. Read vertically, the first letter of each line of the poem contained a message that said military junta leader "General Than Shwe is crazy with power."
Like many aspects of Burmese society, art has been set back not only by repression but also by the country's isolation, some observers say. A dearth of quality paints, brushes and art books and magazines, grinding poverty and the frequent closures of Rangoon's art universities - breeding grounds for activism, the government says - have held back the art scene.
Portraits sold in secret
As a result, most paintings sold in the nation's few galleries are portraits of monks or pagodas, which tourists roll up as souvenirs.
But across the country, portraits of Suu Kyi are bought and sold in secret, and the number of young underground artists is growing, older artists say.
In 2006, Burma's art world caught the attention of Pamela Blotner, assistant professor of visual arts at the University of San Francisco.
To expose Burmese artists to the outside world, Blotner created the Burmese American Art Exchange, which showed an exhibition of 12 American and 24 Burmese artists at the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon at the end of 2007. It is scheduled to be shown in San Francisco in May, including political paintings that could never pass government censors.
"I would love for the project to go on indefinitely," Blotner said. "I'm out there looking for funding, and I'm out there looking for people that are interested."
Blotner, who has visited Burma on numerous occasions, has given a series of lectures on the country and has provided Burmese artists with art periodicals and videos of "Spark," the KQED series about Bay Area artists. The exhibition's paintings were sent to her via diplomatic courier to avoid being confiscated by Burmese authorities.
"They bring the same wonder into making art that a child does but with an adult's intelligence and sensibility," Blotner said. "On some levels, the censorship is both horrific but it's also galvanizing. It's something to fight against. These are the things that draw artists together."
Meanwhile, Lwin says he will continue to paint what's on his mind.
"We are not angry," he said. "We are sad. All of these years have been wasted time."