After Exile, an Artist Sees Burma’s New Colors

By Zarni Mann 22 June 2013

RANGOON—Government censorship of art has eased in Burma, but Win Pe is still taking precautions.

Win Pe, a leading figure in Burma’s modern art scene, displayed 20 colorful paintings of zodiac signs at his exhibition in Rangoon recently, but he kept others off the walls in an act of self-censorship.

“I left out the paintings named ‘A Lion, but …’ and ‘Tribute to the Enemy,’ which I drew with a sense of humor. I might not be allowed to travel out of the country if I show these pictures. Who knows?” he said. “I’m afraid because once I was blacklisted.”

Win Pe spent 18 years in exile under the former military regime. He was forbidden from returning due to his outspoken criticism of the junta while participating in an international writing program at the University of Iowa in 1994.

Before that, he had risen to prominence in Burma not only as an artist, but also as a scriptwriter, director and novelist. But in the United States, struggling to earn a living in those fields, he took a job as a journalist with Washington-based Radio Free Asia and later became a senior editor for the broadcaster’s Burmese section.

(Video: Sean Havey / The Irrawaddy)

“I used to read Time and Newsweek to learn more about news reporting. For the Burmese newspapers, I didn’t want to look at them because the reports showed no freedom. Even now, there isn’t 100 percent freedom, and the media has to report carefully. Even my comment about this could anger the government,” he said with a laugh.

Despite a long appreciation of blues and jazz music, Win Pe lost his appetite for Western music in the United States, though he rediscovered his love of classic Burmese music that he enjoyed as a child.

“It’s very strange. It could have been because I was thinking about Burma so much at the time. In art, as well, I always wanted to paint Burmese landscapes, although landscapes of the United States are fabulous,” he said.

As a journalist he developed a taste for feature stories, later joining the BBC’s Burmese service and producing a radio program about his experiences back in Burma. The program, “Win Pe’s Bag,” discussed art and culture in Burma, with biographies of famous artists, directors and celebrities.

Before leaving Burma, Win Pe served as the headmaster of a fine arts school in Mandalay. As a student he had studied at the same school, the State School of Fine Arts—with courses on fine arts, sculpture, Burmese traditional music and dance—but he left his job after two years due to frustrations about the low budget and lack of support from the government.

“For the government at that time, opening schools for the fine arts and culture was just to fulfill a duty. They did not respect and understand the value of arts and culture. They never had much of a budget and they never offered support,” he said.

“I submitted an appeal to the Ministry of Culture, but the minister was as depressed [about the situation] as I was. After all that, I decided to resign.”

These days, Burma hosts state competitions for cultural music, composition and dance, but artists say the government needs to do more.

“The competitions are efficiently promoting art and culture to the youngsters, but it’s only achieving 10 percent of the actual need,” Win Pe said. “The government should sponsor the study of art and culture, make it compulsory for primary students, to promote creativity.

“Promoting art and culture is very important for the country, especially in this time of globalization. To present the country to the world—art and culture are the best way.”

He says he never imagined living for so long in a foreign country. “I had to apply for US citizenship after living there in asylum for nearly 10 years,” he said. “I don’t know if I can go back [permanently] to Burma or not. Living in a foreign country is such a challenge.”

Win Pe returned to his homeland after being removed from the blacklist by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, which took power in 2011.

“I’m pleased because I can return home, but I feel so sad for my beloved poet Tin Moe, who died before this. He misses the country more than me. I would be blissful if I could return home together with him.”

Burma is changing, he said, but slowly.

“Censorship is said to be easing a bit, but it’s clear that people still need to be cautious,” he said.

“I’d love to stay here in my country, creating my favorite art with pleasure, spending time with my fans. Even now, I planned to stay here for just a couple months but it’s been nearly eight months at this point. However, I don’t dare believe fully [in reform]. I will wait and see.”