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Returning to Burma, and Scratching That Itch

Returning to Burma, and Scratching That Itch

Burmese artist Htein Lin uses his hands to paint during a demonstration at Rangoon’s River Gallery II, where his solo show “Beyond the Itch” is currently displayed. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — With “Beyond the Itch,” his first solo show since 2006, Burmese artist Htein Lin is back.

Famous for the paintings that he secretly worked on during his terms in the custody of the former military regime, the 48-year-old artist is now free to display 25 abstract-style artworks in public—a mix of work from his prison years and from time spent living abroad.

“Now I’m trying to change to being a Rangoon-based artist from a London-based one,” said the painter, who lived away from Burma for seven years for family reasons.

In his latest solo show at Rangoon’s River Gallery II, art fans will see the two major influences in Htein Lin’s life: Buddhism—in his “Last Days of Buddha,” an oversized acrylic-on-canvas painting that depicts the Lord Buddha being cremated, surrounded by his disciples—and Burma’s political and humanitarian struggle—in paintings including four made during his imprisonment, using his prison uniforms as canvasses.

The show is on until April 6 at the gallery between 37th and 38th streets in Rangoon’s Kyauktada Township.

In his self-portraits at the show, visitors can see the highly physical painting method he used behind bars, and still uses in his work. It was a process carried out rapidly in the middle of the night on a tarpaulin on his cell floor. Htein Lin painted without brushes, using his hands, fingers and nails to scratch out designs and patterns in paint before pressing cotton onto the painted surface to take a monoprint.

Lucky visitors to the show might catch a performance of the technique by the artist, and even have the chance to have a go.

The one-time political prisoner, who served seven years in total, said it was his art that pushed him to keep working during that time.

“They are the best examples that you can only jail an artist, but not his creativity,” he told The Irrawaddy, pointing to his self portraits hanging on the gallery wall.

He explained that the title of his solo show represents his feelings during his seven years away from Burma.

“I felt terrible homesickness at that time and it was like an itch to me,” he said. “Now, I’m in Burma and it’s gone.”