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Art of Freedom. Freedom of Art.

Artists in Myanmar: The challenges of newly-gained freedom

Artistic freedom was suppressed in Myanmar for decades. But after former opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi won the elections, the country has been opening up.

Triumphant artists applauding politicians is a rather unusual sight in Myanmar. But following parliamentary elections in November, an upbeat feeling has been taking hold in the country’s artistic community: The long era of isolation seems to have come to an end.

"I'm just so happy," says Aung Soe Min, surrounded by hundreds of canvasses piling up in his studio in the center of Rangun. How long had he hoped that one day, Aung San Suu Kyi, reverentially called "the lady" in Myanmar, would take over power? And that the military regime, together with its harsh censorship measures under which he had to suffer so tremendously, would finally step down? Now his dreams have become true: Following an interim government under President Thin Sein, the opposition party NLD (National League for Democracy) will form a new government.

"We are all happy. All my friends and the members of my band are celebrating", says Mg Nyan, 21, and the singer of the punk band #link:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iW5hAThdZHg:"Never Reverse"#. This was the first time ever that he could vote – and the election results were more of a reason for joy: The NLD won the absolute majority. Mg Nyan is convinced that freedom and democracy will finally unfold in his country.

On one of the paintings on the floor of the Pansodan Gallery in Rangun, the image of Aung San Suu Kyi is recognizable

Aung San Suu Kyi's image on a painting in the Pansodan Gallery in Rangun

Election campaign for "the lady"

Franz Xaver Augustin, director of the Goethe Institute in Rangun, observes the euphoria with quite a bit of skepticism. "The development of the NLD has been extremely hampered over the years. The party has not been able to gather any practical experiences in politics. So it can hardly be able to cope, especially not all by itself. In my view, a government of national unity would therefore be more suitable." And it should not be forgotten that the NLD will not be able to exclude the military altogether anyway, as the latter holds one fourth of parliamentary seats – a fact that enables it to block any attempt to introduce new laws. That’s why Augustin fears that the former opposition party could end up applying a political style that might turn out as being too aggressive in this volatile multi-ethnic state. "The military is capable of producing chaos at any given time. So Myanmar may even follow the sad steps of Thailand where a situation was created that justified an intervention by the military, seen as the only force which could possibly restore law and order."

The political situation is thus calling for a critical distancing of things. But such an attitude seems to be hard to adopt for artists in Myanmar as they had wholeheartedly supported the election campaign of Aung San Suu Kyi – despite the Nobel Prize laureate’s criticism for her authoritarian style, and for having excluded young forces from the party. Even Zarganar, a comedian and one of the leading intellectuals of the country, had beaten the drum for Suu Kyi. "During the election campaign, the artists supported the opposition. I don’t think any of them particularly like the establishment."

That doesn’t come as a surprise as, during the military regime, many artists were imprisoned for years, among them Zarganar, with others being repeatedly arrested, among them Aung Soe Min.

Gallery owner Aung Soe Min

Gallery owner Aung Soe Min

Please draw a pagoda!

Over 50 years, Myanmar was ruled by a military regime. Each single song, film and exhibition needed to be approved by the censorship office that strictly forbade images of violence and nudity. "Artists painted what they were told. Please draw a flower, a pagoda or a monk. That’s what it was like", recounts Aung Soe Min. Already back then, Aung San Suu Kyi was some sort of a secret icon. Each portrait of a woman was suspected of actually alluding to the "lady" who lived under house arrest for 15 years.

Aung Soe Min was a young student living close to the city of Bagan when, in 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi founded the opposition party NLD after her return to Burma from Britain. He witnessed the bloody suppression of the student rebellion against the military regime #link:16984965:"8888 Uprising"#.

From Yangon to New York and Singapore

Twenty years after the student rebellion, he opened his gallery. Shortly afterwards, in 2011, the military opened the country to foreign investors, freed political detainees, and officially abolished censorship. Since then, artists are allowed to exhibit their works also in New York, Singapore or Germany – among them Wie Zaw Nyunt Pe. At the beginning of 2015, his paintings were displayed at the Museum Linden in Stuttgart. "Despite censorship, I have always tried to do what I thought was right", he sums up, "but only now am I able to exchange views with international artists. That’s a great improvement inspiring me a lot."

The Goethe-Institut supports these cultural activities. "The decisive factor in the world of fine arts are individuals who can convince the public with their talent and their creativity", says Augustin. "But wherever team work is needed, as for example in music and theater, things are more difficult. Fifty years of military rule and isolation have left their traces. There is no theater, no orchestra, no dance company. In short: No cultural infrastructure."

Punk music performance in Myanmar

Myanmar's punk scene knows all about effective networking. Pictured: the band Never Reverse and friends

The lady is quite creative

In Myanmar, free speech is still limited to some extent. Artists and journalists come under pressure over and over again – for example during the student protests at the beginning of 2015. "One needs to be very careful. Taboos still exist, and one must be aware of the fact that the former clique has not been abolished altogether ", says Augustin. "When we show critical artworks in the Goethe-Institute, I already know in advance that some of those guys are present during press conferences listening very closely to what we are planning. It’s all being registered." But nevertheless, no exhibition planned by the Goethe Institute, nor by Aung Soe Min’s gallery, has been forbidden ever since the country started opening up some years ago.

Even punks have dared to come out of hiding. In December 2014, the German band "Die Toten Hosen" gave a concert in Rangun together with the Myanmar-based punk bands "Side Effect", "Kaaiza Tin Moong" and "No U Turn". Roughly 6000 fans attended the event, among them Auch Mg Nyan, and there was no military intervention.

In Augustin’s view, a new danger is rather looming somewhere else: "One should not overestimate the influence of artists on the political development of the country. During the opening process, consumerism also made its way into Myanmar somewhat silencing fresh and exciting ideas. Liberality may have increased, but during that process, the role of rebellious artists has lost some of its former importance."

Portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi on fans in Yangon

Aung San Suu Kyi remains an artists' icon. Here she's depicted on fans that symbolically created fresh air for endurance during the campaign

Meanwhile, Aung Soe Min is facing more competition than ever before with about thirty galleries opening in Rangun. Yet, he is quite happy about that development. In his eyes, art is not only a means of earning money, but also a means of building a new society.
And that attitude also explains why he admires the politician Suu Kyi and her strategy during the election campaign. Suu Kyi argued that if the military insisted on the law that ruled out the possibility that she become president because her two sons are British citizens, then she would simply grab a position that was beyond the presidency instead.

"Aung San Suu Kyi is a creative person", he says. "That’s why, regardless of her precise position, she will lead this country forward. Also in politics, one needs to think laterally, and one must find creative solutions. That’s the only way forward."

Sarah Hofmann is a writer and editor with the Deutsche Welle culture desk. She first started exploring Myanmar's cultural scene during a trip to the southeast Asian country organized in February 2015 by the Journalists Network. She remains in touch with several artists and musicians living in Myanmar. Hofmann's article is part of a collaboration with the magazine "Politik & Kultur" and DW's multimedia series "Art of Freedom. Freedom of Art."

Multimedia project

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Artists advocate for the value of freedom

Artists all around the world fight for freedom of speech and individual rights. This project honors their efforts.