Artist Chuu Wai Nyein will never shake the memory of the time her sister was sexually assaulted some eight years ago in Mandalay. A man groped her sister and ran away. Among Chuu Wai Nyein’s many responses to the experience was a heightened interest in female identity and standing up for women.
In her new solo exhibition, “One-Ten-Hundred”, many of the paintings depict half-naked women; it is the artist’s answer to the widespread practice in Myanmar society of victim-blaming in rape cases. “I don’t accept that women always need to dress modestly, or that there would be no [rape] if women wore modest attire,” Chuu Wai Nyein said.
“I don’t mean women should be able to go naked. But their dress has nothing to do with rape,” she said.
Some of the works draw parallels between the court ladies of the Yadanabon Era and the current status of women in Myanmar. The Yadabanon Era refers to the reign of King Mindon in the mid- to late 19th century.
In Myanmar society, women are encouraged to wear modest attire, like their predecessors in the monarchical period, especially the Yadanabon Era, supposedly did. The era is widely considered the epitome of tradition in Myanmar and as a true Burmese cultural reference point for girls and women today.
But based on documents she has seen from the Yadanabon period, Chuu Wai Nyein believes the truth was far more complex.
“Women of the Yadanabon Era were not as I had imagined, and been led to believe. While their attire reflected the unique taste of the Yadanabon Era, I also found them to be free and fashionable,” she said.
“It has probably been the mode of court ladies since time immemorial to wear revealing dress or go topless,” Chuu Wai Nyein said. “But this is just my feeling, and not based on historical research. Maybe it is not historically accurate.”
Two years after the sexual assault on her sister, Chuu Wai Nyein started to draw Myanmar women—their lives, the restraints upon them, the “glass ceiling,” but also their confidence and courage.
She studied with famous painters in Mandalay and Yangon while attending Mandalay Technological University.
Her grades were good enough to get into a master’s degree program at the university, but she chose to do a postgraduate degree in painting at the National University of Arts and Culture in Mandalay.
The engineer-turned-artist has held three solo exhibitions focusing on Myanmar women, and plans to hold both group and solo exhibitions this year and next in New York and France.
“There have been calls for women to wear modest attire. OK—we’ll wear long-sleeved blouses and long pants. Can you guarantee women won’t ever be harassed or raped?” the artist asked.
Chuu Wai Nyein’s solo exhibition at Gallery 65 in Dagon Township, Yangon, runs through Sunday. Paintings are available for purchase for between $150 and $850.