Show Me Your Hands And I’ll Tell You Who You Were

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Some people know already as a child what the aim of their life will be. Others on the contrary first lead a life following an outlined track and discover only later what their true belief is. Several other scenarios exist for the unfolding of our personality; the same goes for artists. But few people experience a similar path to Htein Lin, whose artistic strength was mostly forged by “Life”. Each single chapter of his past probably encloses enough ordeals for one single existence. Together, they form an extraordinary and unique trajectory. Borbála Kálmán meets artist Htein Lin to talk about life – with and without art.

A Visual Poet Healing Pain

Htein Lin is today a well-known contemporary artist from Myanmar. His works belong to private collections in the Netherlands, Hong Kong, India, Sweden, and the USA; he has exhibited around the world and participated to international art fairs and festivals. One couldn’t imagine that twenty years ago, he was recovering from a deep trauma of four years spent in a camp and fighting in the jungle. Around 1992, while he was trying to reinvent himself, he could hardly envisage that in 1998, he would be creating art whilst imprisoned for almost seven years in one of the most notorious jails of the country – for no just reason.

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Htein Lin in front of the plasters – about five hundred already exist.                              Photo: Borbala Kalman

Mainly active in the field of performance and painting, Htein Lin considers himself an artist – not a political activist. Yet, his art inextricably intertwines with the experience he gained through his past, revised by an inner process of meditation; instead of a “fight back”, complex and pertinent responses are born. In spite of the horrors the works hold true, Htein Lin’s art becomes visual poetry thanks to the pictorial metaphors he uses to reflect on the most inhuman atrocities and injustices. His art is about the inexplicable and deals with immeasurable sorrow and pain. It is a strength and wisdom that grows out from the surfaces and takes form through the body of the artist.

Tale from the Jungle

Born in 1966 in the Ayeyarwady Division, Htein Lin arrived in Yangon at the age of seventeen. Although he studied law, he also performed as a comedian at the university. In 1988, almost at the end of his studies, Htein Lin won an important competition in which Zarganar, the well-known Burmese comedian and director, was a member of the jury; actually, in the nineties, after a “black hole” in both their lives, they will end up working closely together. Back in the eighties, Htein Lin was still committed to a form of art tightly connected to theatre. Occasionally, he drew, some realistic women portraits or copied his favorite illustrations of Bagyi Aung Soe. But acting and performing in the traditional way was his main channel of expression.

The most extreme circumstances were needed for Htein Lin to unfold a deeper connection with visual arts: the long years he spent in the refugee camp after he fled Yangon following the events of the ‘88 student uprising. Htein Lin ended up at the Indian border, hermetically closed in the camp. Among the other refugees, one of the commercially most successful artists from Mandalay, Sitt Nyein Aye, decided to start art classes to help keep the men occupied.  Few took it seriously, drawing with pencil-ends on two A-sized paper-sheets per day or on the pieces of newspapers thrown away by soldiers. Nevertheless, the “course” surely changed the life of one student, the young comedian. Having no books, the “students” relied on their imagination and the rhetoric of the “camp master”. “The way he talked about Picasso, Van Gogh and how important they were, the way he explained expressionism, impressionism … he was sharing his knowledge but I simply could not envision this. Back then, I had never seen illustrations of Van Gogh. It was really weird – following only his words to make art,” remembers Htein Lin.

He became an artist in the middle of the jungle. He had had affinity for arts in his previous years, but he would only develop his true skills in the mid-nineties, after the nightmare period following his escape from the camp. After months of hiding, he spent half a year as a guerilla fighter in the jungle, followed by a long period of detention and torture before he managed to break free in 1992. He safely reached “home” and attempted to continue his life where it had previously stopped four years previously. Back in Yangon, Htein Lin was a rebel with long hair, trying to learn again how to sleep and lead a normal life. He finished his interrupted law studies. He became an actor in Zarganar’s films. But above all, he firmly decided to become an artist.

Show Me Your Hands…

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Plasters and their inventory number. The aim is to go beyond at least 1000.    Photo: Borbala Kalman

The history of Myanmar performance art is tightly connected to the period of the mid-nineties, Htein Lin being a pioneer in this field. Performance was the form of expression that suited him the most, in order to convey his personal story and of those who could not raise their voice. Following the advice of senior artist Aung Myint, he tried out a form of expression based on his comedic past. Htein Lin’s first performance was in October 1996. No documentation remains of the event in which he walked in the streets of Downtown, wrapped in plastic sheets and holding a flower pot in his hands. At the same time, he had his first solo show at the Lokanat Gallery.

Htein Lin was preparing his third show in 1998 when he got arrested in the middle of the night. It turned out that an old jungle comrade wrote him a letter mentioning the ‘88 uprising and the idea of planning an action to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the event. Htein Lin spent almost seven years in prison for being mentioned in a letter he never even saw. The author was sentenced for forty-two years.

In prison, artist Htein Lin “was very busy”, always trying to find material on which he could paint and draw. Using soap, prisoner uniforms, bowls, cigarette lighters or bits of paper, he created works which he managed to smuggle out – thousands of them. His wife at that time collected the paper-works in her parents’ house. During their subsequent divorce, when papers needed to be signed but Htein Lin, still in jail, objected, his wife sold the paper-works by their weight. The series “Recycled” reflects the disappearance of these works: Htein Lin, once out of jail, bought sheets of recycled card from his neighbourhood recycling company, hoping that the original works might be still somewhere in the paper-mass.

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A pile of hand-plasters – this is just a small part of the whole.       Photo: Borbala Kalman

Among all of his series, one stands out particularly. Moving back in 2012 to Myanmar after a period spent in England with his new family, Htein Lin started to work on a major documentary and performance piece titled A Show of Hands, mixing sculpture, photography, video and text. It is a process in which Htein Lin meticulously encases in plaster the forearm of former political prisoners while talking with them about their past. Already several hundreds of plaster casts exist (around five hundred), and sadly, the aimed number of one thousand will be “easily” achievable. The process will hence end sometime in the future. “The visual impact of these arms will remind the audience of just how many people gave up their freedom of movement to try to fix a broken nation.” A broken hand heals through plaster – Htein Lin attempts to heal on a bigger scale. Recently, he presented in Yangon an exhibition which would have been banned just a few years ago. The works he showed at the Goethe Institut were tightly related to this “healing process”, but also connected to the works created in prison. Raising his voice through the visual, Htein Lin conveys the past of thousands of people, just by taking a look at their hands.

This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #13, November 2015.

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Borbála Kálmán is a Hungarian art historian and curator born in 1982. After spending seven years managing a leading Hungarian contemporary art gallery, she moved to Yangon in April 2014 so as to get a deeper insight in the Myanmar contemporary art scene. Her research fields varied in the past from orientalist painting in the late 19th century through post-war surrealism in Hungary to contemporary art photography; speaking French at a native level, she recently focused on Hungarian-French artistic relations. She has published several articles and interviews in specific art magazines and has also contributed to exhibition catalogues. She has started cooperating for Myanmore in September 2014 to contribute in widening its coverage about the Yangon art scene.

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