Rows upon rows of plaster moulds of hands stand on shelves in a colonial villa in central Yangon, looking similar, yet all unique. They do not reproduce any person’s arm – they are taken exclusively from former political prisoners, of whom there are many in Burma, where over 5,000 people have served time in jail for political offences.
The eerie exposition is the central piece of ‘The Storyteller’, an exhibition hosted by the Goethe Institute which opened its doors on July 24 and will run till August 28.
The man behind the show is Htein Lin, one of Burma’s best known artists. Married to Victoria Bowman, a former British ambassador to Burma, over the years he has seen his work showcased around the world – from Finland to Thailand, from Norway to Japan, and at Venice’s Biennale in 2007.
Contrary to what one might be tempted to believe, the plasters do not represent anything ignominious, but are a means of fixing society.
“If you break your hand, the plaster helps getting it fit and strong again. Society was broken and political prisoners are plasters that help society heal,” the artist says.
When Asian Correspondent spoke to him, Htein Lin had already collected over 400 samples and that number was growing rapidly, as former political prisoners kept coming to the old house on Ko Min Ko Chin Road, where the artist binds their hands and then releases them, all the while asking soft-spoken but incessant questions.
“I want to create a community-based art work and I want it to be connected with the political history of Burma. This is a message: it is a piece of information about the history of this country,” says Htein Lin, who knows the subject all too well after being imprisoned from 1998 to 2004.
Back in 1988, he took part in the student protests which rocked Burma and then joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), a military group which moved to the ethnic areas to fight against the central authorities.
“Before the protest I was a law student and became one of the student leaders in my region. After the coup, most of the young people believed they should fight against the government and armed struggle was very popular,” he recalls.
Most students-turned-fighters headed for the Chinese and Thai borders, but he was sent to the far west, toward India. It was not an easy experience.
“There was guerrilla war, there was rain and we had to run all the time,” he says. “It was a disaster for young university students.”
He ended his stint as a warrior in 1992 and returned to art. The authorities were slow in catching him: he was arrested only in 1998, after military intelligence got wind of a compromising letter about the 10th anniversary of the 1988 protest which mentioned his name.
Discovered, Htein Lin and two dozen other people were accused of trying to organize another uprising and were sentenced to prison, with the author of the letter getting 42 years, “without actually staging any demonstration,” stresses the artist.
The years that followed were marked by all the hardships which political prisoners typically face: nothing to read, nothing to study, strict discipline and lack of space. But his time in jail was formative nonetheless.
“Prison created opportunities to meet people who deeply understood responsibility toward society. It was actually meaningful and this is why I am trying to be responsible as an artist,” he says.
Those six years – including some time spent at Insein, the country’s most notorious jail – are an obvious influence on his work. Aside from plasters, the current exhibition features a representation of Burma made with bars of soap, each carefully crafted as to represent an inmate caged by prison walls.
More daunting still are the pieces made when he was behind bars: like other artists who spent time in the hands of authorities, he used the available material – mostly pieces of cloth – to create abstract compositions which are now housed next to the main exhibition in small cubicles similar to the cells where he was interned.
‘The Storyteller’ comes at a time when freedom has greatly improved in Burma, but is not simply a reminder of past misdeeds. Although everyone agrees that today the conditions of political prisoners have much improved, many continue to be under threat from authorities.
According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), as many as 150 political prisoners are still behind bars, while about 400 are awaiting trial for their views.
As recently one month ago five students were arrested after staging a peaceful protest in the city center. They were voicing their anger at the Parliament’s decision not to amend the Constitution and allow Aung San Suu Kyi to run for elections, a proposal that floundered after the military block in Parliament used its de facto veto power over constitutional amendments.