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Jail, Censors Leave Imprint on Exiled Myanmar Artist

Chaw Ei Thein
Chaw Ei Thein in her apartment and studio in Queens, New York. The Burmese artist has been granted political asylum in the U.S. Photographer: Ahmet Sibdial Sau/Chaw Ei Thein via Bloomberg

Artist Chaw Ei Thein spent a few days in a dank Burmese jail for conducting a performance piece on the streets of Rangoon. She fled to the U.S. in 2009 and was awarded political asylum.

We met in her one-bedroom apartment in Queens, New York, which doubles as a studio for her and her roommate, another Burmese artist. It’s also where art@apt, a collective of Burmese artists, gathers weekly to discuss art, politics and living far from home.

Space is tight. Thein sleeps in a bunk bed. Paintings are stacked against the wall or tucked under the bed. The works on display are striking and reflect war and peace themes.

One corner is full of photographs, drawings and art dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who will address Burmese exiles in New York on Sept. 22. Thein and members of art@apt are part of the planning and welcoming committee.

Thein, born in 1969, sits on a black leather couch, her hair pulled back into a bun, her hands resting lightly on her knees. Soft-spoken, she leans into every question as if to make sure she is heard.

Randol: With the election of Aung San Suu Kyi to parliament, do you feel optimistic or pessimistic about your country’s future?

Thein: I am optimistic. But I don’t trust the government. You can see now some parts of Burma, like in Kachin state or Rakhine state, that crises are still going on. Why are government troops and ethnic groups fighting if we are heading toward democracy?

Artistic Freedom

Randol: If you could change one thing in Burma right now, what would that be?

Thein: Grant people the freedom of expression. The government should hear our voice so they can do what needs to be done for the people. Freedom of expression, that’s what we need.

As a foreigner, you may think things are changing in Burma. Even Hillary Clinton talks about how Burma has changed. But whenever I call my friends, my family, they say, “Don’t see your country like others see it. It’s not like that.”

Randol: How does Burmese politics affect your art?

Seeking Escape

Thein: I am always thinking about my country, about brutality, and about how I lived under that system. Sometimes I really want to escape from those things, escape from myself. But whenever I try to create something, all those related issues come up.

In Burma, you have to self-censor first. The same thing happens in New York. I lived under that situation for such a long time that self-censorship is second nature. When I try to create something, I cannot really explore.

Randol: Do you want to go back?

Thein: Yes, I have that plan, but I am now attending Hunter College. After that I will definitely go back. There are so many things to do.

Randol: Do you consider yourself a political artist?

Thein: I don’t know if I am a political artist or not. Maybe. Most of the time I think about Burma, and I think about what we can do to be free from that regime. So most of my work is really about that.

Other Issues

On the other hand, I make art about other issues, more personal issues, about seeing the world as a human being. We will die one day, so I am always thinking, “This is me. This is my time. Before I die, what can I contribute to the world?”

I express what I don’t like about society. I share with other people who do not have those experiences, what is happening in other areas, other countries, other parts of the world.

Randol: Do you feel like an artist in exile?

Thein: I feel something like that, exactly. I don’t like it, but that is reality.

(Shaun Randol is a freelance writer. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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