Htein Lin, though he requires no introduction, is a former activist, student soldier and political prisoner (along with other things) who is today considered to be Myanmar’s premier contemporary artist and of its best known social commentator, working in a broad array of mediums to express a unique interpretation of Myanmar society and express his deeply held love for the customs and conventions that have shaped him. He is best known for possessing an evocative, yet simple style with handcrafted aesthetics that delicately walk the line between the abstract and the deeply human being. His works traverse the history of the nation’s conflicts, grief, and healing, identity, religion, and celebrate the spirit and the beauty of ordinary people towards the community.
Sitting at an outdoor cafe nestled in Bahan, Htein Lin explained the way he approaches Myanmar as a subject in art; You can see culture, religion, and politics always influencing each other, he said.
What has set Htein Lin’s work apart is not just his decades of artistic expression and varied experience, but his ability to translate and humanize the experience of being Myanmar into pieces that speak to all audiences – the success of his body work overseas in galleries as far-flung as Australia and Japan speaks to his ability to communicate emotion through his approach to the mediums he employs, of which there are many. From charcoal, illustration, painting, and mosaic to sculpture, textile collage and interactive media, his works continue to provoke thought, and not a little controversy, at home and abroad.
The artist saw a great deal of praise when he contributed a piece to the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, located in Queensland, Australia, at the end of 2018. “ Thabeik Hmauq”, or upturned alms bowl, is a giant 108-string prayer bead chain laid out to encompass a collection of an overturned monk’s alms bowls. Beyond the pleasing minimalist aesthetics, the meaning of the piece speaks deeply to those who can recognize its symbolic elements. The rosary beads represent the religious underpinnings and disjuncture among factions of Myanmar society, particularly the ethnically diverse practitioners of Buddhism.
Laid out in the center are the overturned bowls which explain a historically recognized means of protest. An overturned bowl cannot be filled, and so no merit can be bestowed upon the giver. The practice reaches back centuries to the rule of the Burmese kings but has a modern political relevance to the monk’s participation in the 2008 Saffron Revolution.
The show in Australia was followed up with a project much closer to home, geographically and personally. “Htamein Katesa” (Skirting Issue), which opened in May of this year, was a bold gallery show that included an interactive social media element. He used Facebook to reach out to his followers directly, asking them to participate in his recent exhibition centered on Myanmar’s women. The premise was simple – he asked any and all women to comment and share their thoughts on the traditional belief that mixing men and women’s garments in the wash would lessen the glory or the “hpon” of the household’s men.
Women from all manner of backgrounds and communities in Myanmar made their feelings known on the thread, and the responses were as diverse as they were honest. Many women shared, perhaps for the first time publicly, whether they did or did not hold a belief in the spiritual power of gendered garments. Many doubted it but felt they could not break with tradition without upsetting others in the household.
One response of note came from Citymart Groups owner Daw Win Tint Tint, who said, “I never combine the washing. I grew up in a family mostly of men, and the rule was important. Even now, I continue to follow the custom; however, I will teach my own children that it is wrong”.
Once Htein Lin believed he had caught enough responses, he took the next step which was to put older women’s testimony to video. He did this, as he explained before the exhibit, to show men in the audience that if old women could move beyond superstition, perhaps they could, too. When the time came, he introduced the exhibit as a whole, which included painted htamein (woman longyi) on canvas depicting women in natural poses, amplifying their simple beauty by harnessing the textile patterns and color palettes of the htameins.
The videos of the women discussing mixed laundry were played inside an enormous head constructed using many collected htamein materials sewn together. The fact that one was viewing the testimonials while clothing was hanging over them was an additional layer to the experience – traditionally, men are not allowed to pass beneath women’s garments.
The response to his show was mostly positive, with support from women’s civil society groups – but it drew sharp criticism from conservative elements who scolded the artist for addressing the taboo. A group of ultra-nationalist monks attacked the show online, claiming that the head portion of the exhibit space was actually a sacrilegious depiction of the Buddha, something the artist immediately denied – clarifying that it was a representation of a woman.
“It was mostly men who were angry”, the artist related. “They were saying, why did you choose to do this?”. What he had aimed to do was to invite people to reflect on the customs they followed, without judging people who chose to do so. It was not a simple provocation, but the response did speak volumes about how the issue is viewed, and so all add to the success of the experiment.
Htein Lin’s other recent exhibit piece was in the medium of sculpture. “Revival” is a piece that speaks to the artist’s fascination with construction, urban destruction and re-invention as a constant in modern people’s daily lives, and particularly in Yangon. The pace of change and a concern for the natural Myanmar environment Htein Lin has taken so much inspiration from, prompted him to speak out.
“After the country opened, we lost many antique colonial-era buildings, which I think is very sad. I don’t like the new condo style – it’s so plain. It all looks the same,” he said.
The artist was struck by inspiration when he noted that the route he took from his home to the studio was being littered with discarded building materials, old concrete, rebar and a good deal of rubbish from the construction sites that dotted the road. He began examining the pieces he came across, working out an idea for a new piece in his head, and slowly amassed a collection of the materials he was going to need.
The final product has a brutal elegance to it — a large concrete slab that sits on the floor encrusted all over with starkly pretty turquoise mosaic pieces. From the base, like emerging flower stems, come twisted rods of rebar tangling and twisting into rough rock-like pieces of concrete also displaying calming turquoise mosaic patterns. The artist expressed that the piece is intended to act as a sort of warning – that the rush to modernize should not mean replacing local heritage with faceless modern edifices.
Sitting under the vaulted roof of the outdoor cafe, Htein Lin pondered the question of what he was planning to do next. He left the impression that was near the beginning of this process, with the challenge of drawing his own thoughts and feelings together on a topic before he decided how it was going to become manifest. “Elephants”, he said quizzically.
“I went and visited an elephant camp in Kalaw, and saw that they make papers using elephant dung. A very interesting process. I want to get some of this paper and use it to create an installation.”
Beyond extolling the virtues of Myanmar’s vast and unique animal kingdom, and particularly the virtues of elephants, Htein Lin explained that a new project based around the idea of elephants as symbols of Myanmar’s natural wealth would be ready for exhibition before the end of this year.
The planned exhibit will use the elephant in a literal and a figurative sense, it is a revered member of the Myanmar animal kingdom.
It’s partly going to be about the white elephant and the problems of the illegal animal trade. Elephants are suffering, so I’m concerned with that and the people who are trying to protect them. I want to explore how deeply connected we are with the elephant through our long history,” he said.