‘I Feel We Are Still Attached to Strings’

Kyaw Phyo Tha The Irrawaddy

RANGOON — Of the 60 paintings hung on the walls of Lokanat Gallery in downtown Rangoon, the most eye catching ones depict pairs or trios of colorful, disfigured puppet dancers wearing Burmese traditional attire. Welcome to “Modern Art Exhibition” the first ever solo show of 68-year old artist Aung Khaing, who has been painting for 45 years. “This is my second attempt to have a solo show in my life,” he told The Irrawaddy. In fact, he tried to put on a show nearly 30 years ago, but his work at the time drew sharp criticism from literary censorship officials who then oversaw art exhibitions, as well as applying strict scrutiny to the printed word in Burma. Censors banned all 120 of Aung Khaing’s modern paintings, saying they were unfit for public display. “They scolded me—‘Don’t do that kind of stuff’—after they saw my painting of a mother and child,” recounted the painter. One of the officials barked at Aung Khaing: “The picture symbolizes love. Do you mean we have no love?” When they saw paintings of socialist icons Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, another official said: “Tell me why you don’t try our Burmese leaders.”

“I asked them whether they would allow me to paint our national leader Aung San. They gave me no clear answer and my attempt to have first solo show was gone,” Aung Khaing recalled. A self-taught artist and Rangoon native, the painter admitted that despite of his interest in Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock, he wants to create more works with traditional Burmese themes, in his own in modernism flavor—the puppet dancers. “The puppet is one of our Burmese trademarks,” he said. “Though I painted them in a modern style, I can’t hide the Burmese sense in them, and there is movement for they are dancing,” the 68-year old artist explained. Of the disfigured dancers, he said they are the results of his feeling of being deformed by Burma’s past. “My mind, too, thanks to the era we have been through under the oppression of the former military dictatorship. It’s no wonder I can’t paint realism,” he said. Asked why most of his subjects are puppets, Aung Khaing said they are a sort of representation of his unconscious. “Puppets are always attached to strings,” he explained. “Though we have reform today, there are still some human rights violations happening. Unconsciously, I feel we are still attached to strings.”