Guest Column

Myanmar’s Van Gogh Taken Too Soon, Leaves Legacy of Indomitable Beauty

By Seinenu Thein-Lemelson 16 January 2018

While San Zaw Htway was in Insein prison, serving a 36-year sentence, he would gather the inedible, raw grains that were mixed in with his daily bowl of rice and throw them a few yards in order to feed the sparrows that gathered along a prison fence. At first, he had to throw the grains down three flights of stairs, but he disliked having the little birds so far away. He threw the grains closer and closer. By the end of the third week, the sparrows learned to hop inside the area directly in front of his cell. The following day, he was forced to part with his new friends when he was transferred to another prison. “It was such a pity! I felt so sad to leave them behind,” he recounted to me last August at his home in Taung Dagon, a suburb of Yangon.

In Taunggyi prison, he similarly befriended a small owl. A gecko with a missing front leg became a daily companion. “I would put down a little ball of rice, he would eat it and then looked up at me,” he laughed. The gecko stayed in his cell for several months until, one day, a worker from the prison stepped on it.

“Oh, my friend died! I could not sleep that night!”

As with most of the stories he would tell me, there was almost always a lesson at the end of it. “When one has encountered loss like this…one has to keep renewing hope again and again to find happiness,” he told me. San Zaw Htway’s loved ones will have to renew their own sense of hope and learn to find happiness again, after losing the beloved artist, activist, teacher, poet and former political prisoner to cancer in the early morning hours of December 31st, 2017.

San Zaw Htway was born on June 30, 1974, in Ye Township, Mon State. The youngest of six siblings and partly of Mon, Dawei, and Burmese descent, his parents separated when he was an infant and his mother left her six children in the care of their grandmother while she went to work in Yangon, selling blankets. He saw Yangon for the first time as a child when he attended his eldest sister’s wedding. “At that time, the way from our village was still difficult. If you travelled by highway, you got robbed,” he said. “People only travelled by water. It lasted two nights and three days to ride a boat on the ocean to get to the town of Ye.”

When he returned to Yangon, this time to live, San Zaw Htway was an adolescent. He eventually enrolled at the University of Yangon. His time as a university student was short-lived. Like many other creative and idealistic souls, he found kindred spirits among the network of democracy activists. In 1999 someone he thought was a fellow dissident turned out to be an informant. He was arrested and sentenced to 36 years in prison.

Pink Moonlight by San Zaw Htway, collage from recycled materials, undated.

For all the darkness that prison life brought, it never extinguished San Zaw Htway’s inner light. Ironically, it delivered him to a form of sublimation that he had not yet discovered as a young boy growing up in a small village, nor at the university, which had been decimated and dismantled by the junta after they re-seized power in a violent coup in 1988. He found a mentor in an older prisoner who taught him art. Thereafter, he began exchanging food with the guards in order to obtain scissors and glue. They allowed him to rummage through the prison’s garbage. He salvaged scraps of plastic and foil and transformed them into mesmerizing works of art, saturated with color, revealing landscapes he had no access to in prison but that offered a window into his mind and soul.

San Zaw Htway’s inner world of color, light and passion became accessible to the outside world when he was finally released in 2012. By then he had created dozens of collages. His imaginings are distinctly Burmese — houses on stilts, pagodas dotting a fertile mountainside — yet the emotions they convey are universal. Perhaps his most moving depictions are his scenes of nature, which resemble brushstrokes from afar and channel the works of other artists whose works he had likely never seen before entering prison. The natural environment depicted in San Zaw Htway’s collages transports one into a dream where Hiroshige’s mountains, fields, and seas exist underneath what feels like a Chagellian sky.

While there are elements in his collages that resemble the renderings of artists from distant cultures, the intensity of his color palette and the emotions it induces is most similar to the works of Vincent van Gogh. Like van Gogh, who was committed to an asylum before he created some of his most well-known works, San Zaw Htway labored to produce his art while he had no access to the outside world. In Mountain in the Sea, an iridescent sea of turquoise, streaked by yellow rays of light that spiral outward from a partially hidden sun, engulfs a gleaming stretch of land and a magnificent green mountain, overtaken by streaks of red and gold. One imagines him conjuring the colors and light from his childhood in Dawei — perhaps his first journey into the Gulf of Martaban.

San Zaw Htway often paid homage to the democracy movement through his art. A longtime supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi, he used gold foil to render portraits of her, both in prison and after his release. He remained an admirer of her up until his death. To her critics, he had this message: “She’s doing as much as she can, as much as she can do. She tries to go over the limit too. So, I respect that. I admire it and am satisfied. We, ourselves, will have to live likewise, individually,” he told me in 2017.

Mountain in the Sea by San Zaw Htway, collage from recycled materials, undated.

“[Those who criticize] are not taking into consideration the perspective of the people who need to change the whole thing here. So, people who are criticizing now, they don’t keep these ideas in mind: How could what I am fixing, on my own, help others? How can we collaborate?” he said. “Everyone has that opportunity. If you do not [help] and just utter profanities without doing anything, your life will not become better. The country will not become better either.”

A survivor of torture, San Zaw Htway directed compassion toward his perpetrators. He described to me how one of his first political acts after regaining his freedom was to advocate for the release of a fellow prisoner who had conspired with the wardens to harm him. He knew that forgiveness did not mean an erasure of past actions. His many artistic performances, regularly enacted in public spaces, were meant to jolt the public’s consciousness and to give testimony to injustice.

Known as Nyi Htway to close friends and family, San Zaw Htway spent what little he earned and most of his free time helping others. When a friend took ill last year, he nursed him back to health, taking it upon himself to do his daily cooking and spoon-feeding him when he refused to eat. A wise, gentle soul, San Zaw Htway also had a stubborn willfulness, an inner strength that allowed him to remain idealistic in the face of unthinkable brutality and oppression. Friends also remember him as a fun mate, always happy to be a co-conspirator and accessory to a good time.

After his release from prison, San Zaw Htway used the collage methods he innovated to teach art to Kachin refugees, orphans infected with HIV, and underprivileged youth in Yangon. Before he passed away, we were collaborating on a series of children’s books about the democracy movement and jointly developing educational programs for children of former political prisoners. In 2014, while I was helping him write his fellowship application to qualify for the Artraker Award, he wrote to me that he thought his art gave testimony to the fact that “torture and oppression can break a man’s body but cannot take away the spirit within.”

While his spirit endured, his body finally surrendered. San Zaw Htway was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer in early November. The cancer was a result of infections acquired during his time in prison. His family, beset by decades of hardship that began when he was first imprisoned, struggled to find adequate medical treatment for him. With no reparations yet for former political prisoners, few programs to help them, and little sympathy for them from the international community, his friends resorted to auctioning his art in order to fund his cancer treatment.

Untitled, by San Zaw Htway, collage from recycled materials, undated.

San Zaw Htway spent his life bridging disparate worlds. Through his art, he brought his inner world of childhood memories and unbroken idealism to an external world of suffering and injustice. He moved effortlessly between children with HIV, Kachin refugees, underprivileged urban youth and former political prisoners because he understood that the deep chasm thought to exist between the suffering of democracy activists and of other communities in Myanmar is illusory. After his death, his family and close friends, including myself, are left wondering how we can realize the ideals — and dreams — we shared with him.

In the days before he finally succumbed to cancer, I thought often about how San Zaw Htway had given me so much beauty, shared so much of his light with me, and how I had returned so little. I know one of the best ways I can repay his gifts to me is to try to bridge that illusory chasm and do what I can to place his suffering not in a bounded space, but under a broader canopy where hope can be continually renewed and true beauty can remain as it was for San Zaw Htway — indomitable.

Seinenu Thein-Lemelson, Ph.D., is a Burmese-American psychological anthropologist. She is currently a visiting scholar in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley and the founder of the Institute for Democratic Education and Leadership (IDEAL). Her private collection of San Zaw Htway’s art will be displayed this year in Yangon in order to honor his life. Please contact her at [email protected] to set up appointments for viewing.