The Best of Myanmar's Censored Art

For nearly 50 years the country's socialist government banned artworks for often seemingly arbitrary reasons.

Zach Sokol

Zach Sokol

'Waiting For' (2010) by Than Htay 

On top of having one of the world's longest-running civil wars and widest income gaps, Burma (officially known as Myanmar) implements some of the world's most stringent censorship laws. Before the country's 2013 elections, all publications were required to have the government's Press Scrutiny and Registration Division and Ministry of Information approve all media content (even today journalists are still getting detained for various ambiguous violations), and artworks were regularly censored over the last half century.

If an artist or writer overtly criticized the government, imprisonment and torture weren't uncommon punishments. The government sought to strike down any art that it perceived as a possible spark for civil unrest or an interruption to the muffled cultural status quo. For example, nudity, images related to superstition, and abstract works that the censorship board felt might contain secret political messages were removed from public view. Artwork that featured excessive red imagery was considered revolutionary (i.e., not sufficiently socialist for the government), and including too much black was believed to be a threatening statement about the country being depressed.

Opening this week at the Nock Art Foundation in Hong Kong, Banned in Burma: Painting Under Censorship is an exhibition that showcases once-censored Burmese paintings from 1962 through 2011. Featuring more than 50 works from a variety of artists, the show will put a spotlight on many works that have been hidden in attics and studios for decades. Curated by researcher Melissa Carlson and professor Ian Holliday, Banned in Burma seeks to bring the work out of obscurity, with hopes of encouraging museum acquisitions so that the art can be properly archived and preserved. 

To learn more about the odd censorship practices in Burma, I spoke with Carlson about why the show isn't being held in Burma, what other themes and imagery were considered taboo by the government, and her goals for the future of these paintings. 

'Civilization' (2003) by San Minn

VICE: I read that you've written extensively about Burmese art, but is this your first time curating an exhibition?
Melissa Carlson:
It is my first time. It was easy to curate because a lot I had covered in my prior research. It became a matter of going back and asking the artists if I could borrow their work. I didn't have a single rejection; they were all really excited to have their work shown.

What has your past Myanmar-related research focused on in specific?
I used to be in the Foreign Service working in Bangkok. When I was working in Thailand, I was interested in Myanmar issues. There were so many cross-border issues going on in terms of migrant workers, refugee camps on the border, etc., and I was finally able to visit in 2011. I also have always loved art and was always interested in censorship and domestic politics of whatever country I'm working in.

I went back to graduate school to at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, focusing on Southeast Asia and I used that opportunity to look more in depth at Myanmar. The program was heavily econ-focused, but I managed to write this paper on the national identity of Myanmar through the lens of censorship applied to visual arts.

I found it fascinating how the government took a different path towards censorship. If you look at how other socialist countries like China or the former Soviet Union used censorship to promote an ideology, there was really an artist core to promote things like maybe "The Mighty Lenin," or industrial China. You didn't have that in socialist Burma.

The prime socialist period in Burma was roughly 1964-88. My research paper focused on why you didn't see the same type of propaganda as in Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Union. I discovered instead a very negative or prohibitive application of censorship with the arts. It was more about what you shouldn't do rather than what you should do. Like instead of telling artists, "You should be making portraits of our great generals and factories," akin to Mao storming across mountaintops, they had this 1964 censorship code that had a list of prohibitions-some of which were quite bizarre. And it was all about regulating art exhibits.

Like, you couldn't have any art about encouraging superstition, or anything supernatural, or the occult. You couldn't produce art that criticized the political system unless you could prove it had "constructive intent," which is very ambiguous. And no artist wanted to take the risk to criticize the system and also justify it. It wasn't ideologically based, but rather ambiguous and ad hoc.

It evolved to be a censorship board. And this board would actually visit the artists and galleries on the morning of an exhibition opening. The board members, who were really militant and had no visual arts background, would look at the paintings and in an arbitrary fashion hone in on specific ones. If they didn't like it, they'd take it down. Then I started looking at those, and began coming up with a framework for what the censorship board was afraid of. And that's how I got to these four categories of why things were taken down.

'Nude' (2010) by Shein

Can you explain these four categories?
Well there's probably more than four, but I noticed that paintings were consistently censored when they hit one of four categories. Abstract works were probably the most censored since they made the government nervous because they weren't sure if an artist was trying to hide a political message. The regime was more comfortable with realist, agrarian, and pastoral scenes-nothing that really reflected Myanmar in the 60s. If you were doing abstract work and anything funky it wouldn't go through.

Then the next category was color. Red is weird because it's the global color of socialism, but it was still a threat to the government censors. Before 1988, they just saw red as violence, revolution, and blood. Too much black in a photo was bad, too. Even with photography-there's one photo in our exhibit that was originally censored because it made the censor board feel that the artist was commenting on Myanmar being depressed. 

The third, probably the most obvious, is political allegory. Not even outright political messages, but subtle political allegorical hints-paintings like Civilization, or Lady First Safety First. Even if they were subtle, the censors got it and were always lurking for threatening art.

The fourth category is morality. Paintings that were of nudes or nontraditional portrayals of Buddhism were censored. Even today, those get you in a bit of trouble. 

After the art was censored and the artists were persecuted, what happened to the physical art? Was it destroyed or placed somewhere in specific? What did the government do with work it didn't destroy?
It wasn't like Nazi Germany where they burned degenerate art. Apparently, closer to 1988, the Myanmar officials were rougher with the art in terms of damaging it. Often, they'd put a stamp on the paintings-on the front and back. It'd still taint the art, and I wanted a piece like that in the exhibit, but apparently several museums have already bought those. I also heard stories of artists negotiating with the censors. Like people who did nudes would paste paper on top of what was considered lewd.

'Woman 2' (2013) by Sandar Khin

How did you collect the art for this exhibition? I read you found many in old studios, but where else?
Most are on loan from the artists themselves. Some I had known about from my research, but I can't say I rejected any censored work-I didn't want to double censor. [laughs]

When I did the paper, I had to really gain people's trust to get them to tell me their stories. I had already met with some of them three or four times. Then they'd introduce me to friends. The artist community in the city Yangon is really tight.

What were the artists' thought of this group show? Were they elated or did they feel like what was the point, since the work still isn't being shown in Myanmar?
I like to think this jump-started them to think about showing their work. Like the artist San Minn was inspired to do his own exhibition in Yangon. The reason I chose Hong Kong was because I live here, though the timing is fascinating.

I think it's interesting to bring the art out of Myanmar to have other countries look at what life can be like for an artist outside of their own regime. And it will be good to eventually bring it back to Myanmar so the artists can stand proud next to their work.

If you did have this exhibition in Myanmar itself, do you think there could be a negative reply from the current regime?
I don't know. I'd like to think we could have it in Yangon based on the reforms made to the 1964 Censorship Code in 2013, and I'd be curious to see if any of the artists would be interested. I think more would be after 2015 when there's a new election. I couldn't say the current government wouldn't respond-and lately there's been intense sentencing of journalists who are covering issues it doesn't want covered. I would hope the regime has more on its plate than monitoring the art scene.

Banned in Burma is open at the Nock Art Foundation through November 9 and will re-open on November 29 at the Hong Kong Visual Arts Centre. For more information, visit the exhibition's Facebook page.

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