Zay Zay Htut answered that he was twenty-three years old. He then silently dabbed red paint on his unfinished artwork. “Oh wait”, he paused and looked up to the ceiling, “I am thirty-three years old”. He softly laughed and went quiet again, seeming to forget all about the people crowding his living room which also acts as his work space.
In person, Zay Zay Htut does look in his early twenties. He is very soft spoken and has the calm demeanour which sometimes tilts to the point of someone who might be lost in space. As an artist, you might have seen his paintings at the River Gallery located in Strand Hotel. They are hard to miss. Big, heavy doors that are heavily secured by chains and locks so that the outside world cannot see or enter inside. It seems that whatever is behind those doors they would have a harder time to get out. This is his signature style; the locked doors. In some paintings, a key is dangling inside the lock, and there would be a keychain with a small picture of The Lady. Some of his foreign buyers playfully complained to him that locked doors are unlucky but the majority immediately understand them as political statements. The unfinished artwork in his studio, however, is of an open window with a smiling woman inside. Her left hand is raised in peace sign. The window is red in colour.
“Is it because of the election result?” I asked.
He smiled at the question but did not give a concrete answer. “I already have some ideas of opening them (the doors).I went to Shan State recently and put all of my emotions from that trip in this painting. Of course I am happy with the result because the party I voted for won. I am happy that the road has opened, although there is a long way to go.” He then paused, frowned for a moment in thought. There are artists who could express the meaning of their works in prose while others grunt and run away from these questions, letting their works speak for themselves. Zay Zay Htut appears to understand the need to engage with his audience and even though he’s not loquacious, he tries to express his thoughts in words without needing to probe or prompt.
“I started painting the lock paintings because I was young and going through a heartbreak. Only some of my close friends know this as I do not see the point in telling this without being asked”, he explained. His lovely wife came in to offer a glass of orange juice. The subject of the heartbreak was not explored any further.
“So I painted two of them under the title ‘My Heart’. It clashed with the censorship. They were telling me I would not be allowed to exhibit them. I was very sad. I begged and pleaded with them, saying it was just about my personal experience and nothing to do with politics. They told me to put a heart sticker on the lock. And I did.”
“It was at that moment that I knew my artwork has been intruded and violated. I painted something with complete innocence and they forced me to change it. I was not into politics and the country’s affairs, but now I understood it concerned every one of us. So I painted an opened door with a group of puppets inside. Because the artists were just like puppets, with no real freedom to express themselves. It cleared the censorship. And then it was banned. That was the last time I clashed with censorship. Now it is okay.”
“So I continued painting locks, and other artists liked them. Although I did not get to sell any, I was encouraged. After the day of 2012 election, I sold my first lock painting. I was also adding the keychains by then. Afterwards, a lot more people know about them.” He stated that most of his buyers are foreign collectors.
“Why do we have very few local art collectors and buyers?” I asked him.
“Economy”, he answered back immediately. “Once our economy improves, once our living situation improves, we will have time to enjoy art. Now people do not even watch news. They just want entertainment to relax after a long hard day. I, myself, saw a painting in real life only back in 2007. I did not know where the art galleries were. If children are taught basic a level of art and art appreciation, I believe we will become a more polite and civilized society.”
“I am self-taught. My father liked to paint for fun but he passed away when I was very young. I knew about the State School of Arts but I did not have funds to attend. I was working during school holidays to help out my family. I would just trace drawings and pictures with pencils. Later on, an artist moved into my neighbourhood and I learnt from him about mediums and paints. Also the existence of art galleries. Afterward, I would draw paintings to sell at Bogyoke Market. The subjects were very repetitive, of flowers and monks. Some days, I got really frustrated, but it gave me money to buy canvas and paint to draw what I wanted. I know some of the artists looked down on this practice but that is how the situation is. You do not earn much but at least you get to continue painting. Things were so, so tough for the older generation of artists. They used to have only one or two exhibitions in a year. I really respect them for surviving it and still withstanding now.”
Zay Zay Htut is unconcerned about his past as a Bogyoke Market artist. After all, he knew very clearly from the start, of the path he wanted to choose. “The styles were different. I did not sign them with the signature I plan to use for life and to express my real art.”
He thoughtfully added, “Once things are more peaceful and we gain more trust from investors, it will become easier for the artists and we will not need to do these things anymore”.
Zay Zay Htut’s artworks can be seen at:
River Gallery I: 92 Strand Road, Yangon. Tel:95-1-243377/8/9
Orient Art Gallery: 121(e), Thanlwin Road , Kamayut Township, Yangon. Tel: 95-1-502745