Hands of Hardship: Artist Htein Lin Spotlights Political Prisoners’ Travails

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 27 July 2015

RANGOON — In the beginning, Htein Lin was not sure whether the public would have a chance to see his work, with the Burmese artist worried about finding an exhibition space large enough to house the sprawling project.

Since 2013, he has been taking plaster casts of the forearms of Burma’s former political prisoners while documenting their hellish experiences behind bars, and delving into how they managed to overcome interrogations and torture perpetrated by cadres of the former military regime.

“If you break your arm, your bones heal thanks to the immobilization of the plaster, and the natural healing of your body. But it takes time to heal, and during that time you are immobilized,” he said of the reason he chose plaster of Paris as a medium for the project.

The 49-year-old added that more than 3,000 political prisoners were similarly immobilized by the prison cells to which they sacrificed years of their lives over the period from 1988 to 2012.

“Three-thousand is just a number. But the visual impact of over a thousand arms will remind the audience of just how many people gave up their freedom of movement to try to fix Burma, which had been broken into pieces,” he said.

Over the last two years, Htein Lin has traveled across Burma and ventured abroad to visit hundreds of ex-political prisoners, to date collecting more than 400 plastered forearms and their stories.

“Having a chance to listen to how they survived their suffering has been a significant experience for me. It made me more mature,” he told The Irrawaddy recently.

Now, with his “Story Teller” multimedia art exhibition at Rangoon’s Goethe-Institut, Htein Lin is able to publicly share those experiences.

Accompanied by sculptures, installation art, paintings, video and audio, the nearly one month long show for which “A Show of Hands” is one part will wrap up on Aug. 23. Separate exhibition booths tell some of the artist’s personal experiences, display artwork he secretly created during his time in prison, as well as conveying the stories of his fellow political prisoners.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is “A Show of Hands,” the display of 405 plastered forearms of ex-political prisoners, accompanied by pictures and videos of the plastering process that each participant underwent while recalling their experiences behind bars.

“I just want to leave stories for the next generation, to let them know that, ‘your grandparents and dads did this for your country,’” the artist, who himself spent seven years as a political prisoner, said during the opening ceremony of the show last week.

Since Gen. Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, Burma has never had a shortage of political prisoners, but the ranks of prisoners of conscience swelled dramatically after a failed democracy uprising in 1988 was followed by a nationwide crackdown on dissidents.

Those who were arrested often endured inhumane treatment, including extra-judicial killings, solitary confinement and torture, for their political beliefs. Many of them were released in 2012 after the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein came to power a year prior.

Ko Ko Gyi, a former political prisoner as well as a leader of the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, said the assembled plaster casts represented “a collection of hands that collectively tried to push the country forward with their lives.”

“Htein Lin, the artist cum former political prisoner, reflects Burmese politics with his art, because [he realizes] documentation is important for a country,” Ko Ko Gyi told The Irrawaddy.

Htein Lin said his project was part art, part community engagement, explaining that while some hands were cast in private locations, others were done in public spaces such as teashops or at Rangoon’s Inya Lake, often drawing the attention of a curious public.

“During the plastering process, on some occasions, people approached us with anxious looks and asked ‘Are you guys OK?’

“When I explained to them what we were doing and who my participants were, they showed admiration for the former political prisoners I was working on. Some people even said: ‘Hold on. I have a friend who is an ex-political prisoner. Here is his number.’”

Ma Thida, a former political prisoner turned editor and president of the freedom of expression advocacy group PEN Myanmar, said “A Show of Hands” offered a visual medium for exploring the country’s dark past, adding that “we need to have something that documents what has happened.”

“It’s not about revenge,” she said. “It’s something that recognizes people who took part in the country’s democracy movement.”

And indeed, the exhibition is arguably as relevant to present day realities as it is to the recent history of Burma, where hundreds of people still languish in jail serving prison terms or awaiting trial for offenses that political prisoner advocacy groups say qualify them as prisoners of conscience.

Other exhibition highlights may be the paintings that Htein Lin secretly created on prison uniforms when he was in jail, and a piece of installation art featuring a map of Burmese made up of soap bars of the same brand as that issued to inmates by prison authorities. A closer inspection of the artwork reveals that each bar has been chiseled to portray a solitary confinement cell with an inmate inside.

Htein Lin said the “A Show of Hands” project is not yet completed, given the large number of ex-political prisoners in Burma. Even over the course of the exhibition at Goethe-Institut, he plans to cast the forearms of additional former political prisoners. Among the list still to be cast is Burma’s pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who promised Htein Lin that she would make an appearance to have mold of her forearm join “A Show of Hands.”

Asked about his expectations for the exhibition, Htein Lin is modest: “You can’t expect big things like peace from a work of art. If you do so, you are too greedy.”

“But if you want to reflect on what has happened in the past, art is very effective.”