The Lady, Hirsute and on Horseback

By Simon Roughneen 24 June 2013

RANGOON — Mounting a mustachioed, armor-plated Aung San Suu Kyi on the back of a white horse isn’t meant to be subversive or satirical, says artist Myat Kyawt.

“She has huge responsibility now, not like when she was a dissident,” says the Mandalay-born painter, standing beside his double-take-inducing rendering of a famous old hagiography of Gen Maha Bandoola, who led the Burmese army against the invading British during the first Anglo-Burmese War.

On the wall, the battle-ready lady looks afar, her eyes infused with an apparent sense of destiny, while massed ranks of Burmese soldiers stand in the background.

“She’s becoming strong, powerful,” says Myat Kyawt of the opposition leader and Nobel laureate, pointing out that political leadership has been a man’s thing in Burma in the past.

If those Xena Warrior Princess parallels are too arcane for some, a split symmetrical portrait—half Suu Kyi, half President Thein Sein—should make a clearer point to today’s Burma watchers, with remnants of the president’s wispy and aspirational side-parting giving way to the National League for Democracy leader’s lustrous, garlanded ponytail.

“The idea to me is to show Daw Suu as the equal and sometimes successor to all these men,” says Myat Kyawt, referring to the opposition leader with a title of respect. “And that she now works together with the government,” he adds, hinting that if his work is a nod to some of Burma’s historical and contemporary icons, that nod comes with a wink of subtle iconoclasm.

It wasn’t long ago that images of Suu Kyi were banned in Burma, but nowadays the Lady is a lawmaker and aspiring presidential candidate, as well as a ubiquitous presence in Burma’s relatively unshackled press, and on T-shirts, posters and mugs for sale across the country.

The old official ban on writing about and portraying Suu Kyi was matched by an unofficial taboo against criticizing her—leaving aside the jeremiads of Burma’s state-run mouthpiece The New Light of Myanmar, which in the past branded her as a foreign agent. But those old ineffables are lapsing; in recent times, Suu Kyi has had her ear bent by displaced and disgruntled Burmese landowners, as well as by foreign human rights pundits who see her as unsympathetic to Burma’s Muslims, and by Arakanese politicians who see her as overly concerned about the same cohort.

All the same, the cross-dressing hirsute lady on horseback is not meant as mockery. Rather, the painting should be taken as part of Myat Kyawt’s meditation on the themes of history, leadership and collaboration—all central to his exhibition “Making New Myanmar,” which hangs in Gallery 65, a three-year-old showcase for local and sometimes foreign artists on the ground floor of a colonial-vintage teak townhouse near Rangoon’s downtown.

Bridging the two centuries between Maha Bandoola and Thein Sein is a perhaps less jarring androgyny, hanging opposite the mounted, Boadicea-like Suu Kyi. This time she resembles her long-dead father, Gen Aung San, the Burmese independence leader, with her tresses mostly covered by his familiar cap. Roses also adorn her hair, of course—below and behind the green, red and black cap that was her father’s sartorial trademark.

That Suu Kyi brand—the hair tied up with a bit of a fringe hanging and a rose or two for decoration—is a motif on most of Myat Kyawt’s caricatures, from defiant-looking children left homeless after the 2008 Cyclone Nargis, to several self-portraits of the artist himself, mischievously smiling and bewigged, Suu Kyi style, like an Elton John parody.

Getting the paintings shown might, therefore, be taken as a time marker of reform, given that red roses, women with flowers in their hair, or any image redolent of Suu Kyi, for that matter, were off limits during her house arrest, which ran on and off for 15 years from the late 1980s to 2010.

But in early 2011, a few months after Suu Kyi was freed, a civilian government staffed mostly by ex-army men started a series of political reforms, including pruning the onerous thicket of press restrictions that made Burma one of the world’s worst places to be a journalist.

If Burma’s media have it better now, it doesn’t mean censorship has been completely lifted for artists. “Making New Myanmar” is an ongoing job, it seems, as galleries still have to check in with the government bowdlerizers prior to staging an exhibition.

On the wall in the center of the room hangs the approval certificate for Myat Kyat’s exhibition, stamped and dated June 21, the day before his paintings went on show on Saturday.

Such tight turnaround can make it awkward to advertise and promote, but “it’s nowhere near as bad as it used to be,” says Min Lwin, Gallery 65’s proprietor, who points out that “political topics are now free for all, but sometimes cultural sensitivities are used as a reason to block this image or that.”

“We have had some paintings blocked in recent times,” he adds. “But now it’s just a polite request from the censors before we go to exhibit. Before—in 2010, especially—they would block many and scold us for an hour about what they didn’t like.”