Art style

Art has become an act of resistance

Stickers of Myanmar’s current and former military leaders are depicted on the steps leading up to the exhibit. — Open Democracy/Sai

New London exhibition by artist Sai reveals horrors of neglected conflict, writes Rashmee Roshan Lall

A BOLD new exhibition by a young Burmese artist challenges people not to turn away from dead babies and brutalized women in conflict zones overlooked by the world’s media.

The London show, “Please Enjoy Our Tragedies,” is by Sai, a multimedia artist who hides his last name for security reasons. Some of Sai’s work will be presented at the Venice Biennale from April 23, as part of the European Cultural Center’s Personal Structures exhibition.

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine currently dominates global attention, Sai draws connections between this conflict and domestic repression in Myanmar. “The same stakeholders are involved in Myanmar as in Ukraine,” he told openDemocracy. “Russia is arming Myanmar generals and China is supporting them. This is not a Ukrainian problem; it is a global problem.

This is a report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, Thomas Andrews, released a year after Myanmar’s military junta seized power on February 1, 2021. The report says the military has demonstrated with a blatant disregard for human life and deliberately targeted civilians using weapons supplied by “UN Security Council members China and Russia”. Serbia and India also continue to sell arms to Myanmar. Sai added that Ukraine stopped arms sales to Myanmar after the coup.

On March 21, the UN rapporteur took stock of the human toll of the coup. The junta, Andrews said, has murdered more than 1,600 civilians, detained more than 10,000, displaced more than half a million and destroyed more than 4,500 homes, all while spreading armed conflict to previously peaceful areas. International action on Ukraine, he added, is the standard by which the world’s response to the Myanmar crisis should now be measured.

Sai opened Facebook on his cellphone, scrolling quickly. “You see, we have the same problems as Ukraine. A little baby shot in the head, villages burned. Our news feeds are a very visual documentation of Myanmar’s suffering.

The exhibition also functions as a news feed across different mediums – fabrics, images, videos – documenting the political turmoil that has engulfed Myanmar as well as the personal tragedies of its people.

This includes Sai’s own family. Her father, Linn Htut, was chief minister of eastern Shan state when the coup took place in 2021. Appointed to the post by the leader’s National League for Democracy today Now-fallen Aung San Suu Kyi, Sai’s father had already been elected to the regional assembly in Myanmar’s landmark 2015 polls, which ended nearly 50 years of military rule.

“There was only one month left in his term,” Sai said. But his father is accused of corruption, thrown in prison and sentenced to 16 years of forced labor. His wife, a former judge, was placed under house arrest and Sai, their only child, went on the run with his daughter-in-law, “K”, a human rights activist.

Sai decided to use his art to show the painful reality of Myanmar to the world. “Making art is about using evidence,” he explained, to show the truth and serve as a fact checker for the junta’s narrative.

Stickers of Myanmar’s current and former military leaders – Generals Min Aung Hlaing, Than Shwe and Ne Win – are paraded on the steps leading up to the exhibit. Three short films set the tone, showing a child’s grief over the plight of an incarcerated and tortured parent, a story quite common across Myanmar today. Sai and K made the films during a secret visit to the chief minister’s official residence, where Sai put on his father’s clothes, as if to hug him. The camera watches as Sai stands in the corner of a darkened room, scratching at the wall, a desperate and ineffectual act born of his inability to push away the solid reality of political oppression.

A two-by-one-meter fabric image bears two rosettes, each with 150 petals, at each corner. The petals are woven from the clothes of prisoners, taken by the junta since the coup. Sai explains that he wove in the style of a Shan rug because “Myanmar’s problems are always swept under the rug, but when we become the rug itself, no one can sweep us under.”

A headless mannequin wears a costume of clothes in a piece titled “military pants”. Complete with shoulder pads, it’s a parody of a Myanmar military uniform, the tough raincoat-like fabric adorned with brand logos such as Myanmar Brewery, Padonmar Soap, Army Rum and Black Shield Stout. These are just a few of the hundreds of companies within the massive Burma Army empire. It has been around for 60 years and has interests in everything from liquor to banking, tobacco to tourism.

Sai said he made the suit to warn the people of Myanmar, “Don’t give money to finance the bullet that will kill us.” According to a 2019 UN report, corporate revenues have enabled the military to commit human rights abuses with impunity. Through a network of companies and affiliates, the UN said the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, has been able to “insulate itself from accountability and scrutiny”.

Indeed, in the year since the 2021 coup, Myanmar’s generals have plunged the country into crisis. The nascent democratic transition of the past decade has been reversed. Myanmar’s currency, the kyat, has lost 60% of its value, driving up the cost of imports. Foreign investors such as the French giant TotalEnergies, the American oil major Chevron and the Australian Woodside Petroleum left.

And in December, the United Nations Development Program said a new survey of Myanmar respondents confirmed projections that nearly half of the country’s 55 million people will be below the national poverty line. in 2022. The UNDP said Myanmar’s poverty rate would return to “unseen levels”. since 2005, effectively wiping out 15 years of pre-pandemic economic growth.”

It is a cruel blow to a country hailed just a few years ago by the management consulting firm McKinsey as an “outperformer” with GDP growth of at least 5% from 1995 to 2016. In 2015, the World Bank has reclassified Myanmar from a low-income country to a low-income country. -average income.

But now Myanmar is on the downward slope and the world does not seem to care, Sai lamented, either about its pain or about its ongoing revolution. People are fighting for their future, as part of the People’s Defense Force, an armed militia. Myanmar protesters say the collective resistance is a sign that their country is also a brave nation, one the world should deem worth fighting for. Some of Sai’s sponsors say his creative works are a reminder of the many affronts to democracy and human rights around the world and that the small acts of resistance by artists like Sai are more important than ever.

Shortly after the coup, Sai designed a transparent polycarbonate shield to protect protesters from rubber bullets, then handed out the instructions for free distribution throughout Myanmar via social media. He believes artists have a duty to lay down their brushes briefly for the cause and build what is needed.

But the exhibition – “art rooted in tragedy” – also has its own logic, he added, quoting another artist. “If you spit gum on the road, no one will care. If everyone spits gum on the road in the same place, it becomes a big mound, an inescapable problem. I hope my art will be the first of many pieces of chewing gum.

OpenDemocracy.net, April 3. Rashmee Roshan Lall writes on international affairs.