by Vivian Lee
In one of the busiest street markets in Yangon, Myanmar (Burma), Chaw Ei Thein and a friend, the artist Htein Lin, created a performance to comment on the inflated prices under the current Burmese government. They sold small items like candy and ribbons for miniscule amounts of money. They were arrested, and would have been jailed if the police were too busy to see the arrest through. Their performative acts, criticizing a government where civil rights and freedom of speech is limited, led to Thein’s exile from her country.
Since filing for political asylum, Thein has been creating art in the US, where she lives. freeDimensional, an organization that helps exiled artists, was able to help Thein by getting information and contacts from fD’s global network of art spaces, human rights organizations, and social service providers to help acclimate her to her new home in New York and continue her activist art. Now she has opportunities to dialogue with university students, give talks and attend weekend strategy-building retreats at art spaces.
Besides performance art and creating art objects, Thein also paints about the pain and fear Burmese people deal with living under an oppressive government. Her images and substantial use of harsh and contrasting colors depict struggles to live in such a confined and cruel civilization. Images like women or men being handcuffed show Myanmar’s lack of freedom; other paintings depict Thein’s own physical and emotional struggle, to be both a Burmese woman and as an artist living in the US.
With the support of groups like freeDimensional, Thein is now free to express her thoughts on the state of life in Myanmar without fear of getting arrested, jailed, or silenced.
freeDimensional, organized by Todd Lester, Hugo Espinel, and Alexandra Zobel, seeks to protect artist-activists who live in oppressive countries by providing a safe space for artists to peacefully explore in their medium of work while also working as activists. For more information or to help this cause, visit their website.
Photo of "Stories Out of Burma #02" courtesy of the artist.