Culture of protest art blossoming in Myanmar

Burmese performance artists in Sweden (Photo: Ric Wasserman)
Burmese performance artists in Sweden (Photo: Ric Wasserman)

Abstract expressionist art is not something you might immediately associate with Myanmar.

After fifty years of military dictatorship and isolation has now passed, artists in the country are now expressing themselves in entirely new ways. 

A group of young artists from Myanmar are currently in Stockholm showing their works, which are highly critical of their society. They represent a protest culture now permitted to blossom.

Ric Wasserman met the artists and has the story from their exhibition in Sweden.

Ma Ei’s video Strawberry Piece shows a husband putting makeup on his wife, while she feeds him strawberries. 

She shouts, “make me beautiful,” which is what she thinks he’s doing. She’s not satisfied though.

When good intentions fail, relationships break down, says Ma Ei. This work stems from an indelible experience as a child.

“The wife she makes money and does all the housework.”

Ma Ei continued, “one day I saw a man beat her in front of everybody. I saw many things like that so when I do performance I face those feelings,”

Ma Ei makes the husband in her video piece suffer..

“The woman keeps feeding him strawberries and he keeps saying, ‘I don’t like strawberries, don’t give me strawberries,’ but he doesn’t spit it out. He swallows it. In real life it’s like that,” Ma Ei explained.

The subject of Ma Ei’s video, marital relations, dominance and ingrained violence against women would have been banned last year in Myanmar.


Artists can now freely express their inner feelings in various ways, but attracting a new audience is a slow process, says Ma Ei.

“Even when we make an exhibition and it’s free admission, not many people come and see. So that’s a problem in my country,” reflected Mai Ei

Abstract expression is new in Myanmar and the meaning of the works has some viewers confused.

One visitor from Myanmar was puzzled when what he thought.

 “I think I’ll talk to you later about this because I haven’t come up with any ideas yet,” he said.

Maw Naing and I take a look at his installation In and Out of Thin Layer – a series of red, black, and white, six-meter long mosquito nets, swaying in a soft breeze.

Angled lighting creates diffuse shadows, which ripple across the floor.

“Most of my ideas come from my poems, after that I choose different medias,” Maw Naing explained.

Stepping inside a net, one may experience a sense of tranquillity – a meditative state. Imagine your ego inside the net, he says – we can enter and leave the net, but it can be hard to separate our thoughts from emotions.

Natalie Johnston runs an art resource centre and archive in Yangon. She’s also the curator of the exhibition.

“This is the first major exhibition of Myanmar contemporary art in northern Europe. What the work is trying to do is get the audience to understand not only the history, the context and the challenges in Burma right now, but also this beautiful and quite peaceful undertone in everything,” Johnston commented.


The exhibition, titled Balance and Provocation is fitting.

Time to break down taboos associated with Buddhism, and even the use of colour, say performance artists, Yadanar Win and Kolatt.

Artists weren’t allowed to use red before. Red was association with revolution, blood. Even black was banned – censors thought it gave the impression that Myanmar was too depressing.

But here in one room, hang traditional king and queen costumes streaked with stains of blood.

Another of their works is a video piece where the pair, wearing the royal costumes saw off each other’s chair legs – cutting down the elitist mentality maybe?


I asked Kowlatt who made the performance video together with Yanadar Win if the highly critical work could be shown at home.

The censors are there, he says, but are fairly helpless now.

“It’s not difficult for us – it’s difficult for them to see,” Kowlatt told me.

Individualism, freedom of choice and questioning power – are implied in the artist’s message. 

After so many years in the cold, Yanadar Win’s works are now attracting interest at home, she says.

“When we come with a show, our ideas, our concepts, people appreciate it, people accept it. That’s a really great thing,” Win concluded.  

  • Myanmar
  • Yanadar Win
  • Ma Ei
  • Kowlatt
  • Maw Naing
  • Myanmar art

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