Htein Lin – where politics and art mix

Since returning from the border and the initial planning of the project with the guys at AAPP the past few weeks have been spent scanning negatives and just more thoughts, ideas and planning. The time has now come to try to move forward a bit and perhaps photograph former political prisoners here in the UK before planning any trips further afield or even back to Mae Sot. Getting their views on the project is really important.  Also it’s a good chance to discuss the idea with others, who whilst involved in the democracy movement, their immediate daily life, work, role lie outside that of political prisoners and get their opinions and feedback both critical or otherwise. Htein Lin at work in his studioSo where better to start than with my friend the world reknowned painter and performance artist Htein Lin. I first met Htein Lin in July 2007 when he had an exhibition at Asia House of his paintings that he had made whilst in Insein prison – the 00235 series. His work is extraordinarily captivating, particularly when you consider how and where these paintings were created. We soon struck up a friendship and he came to my exhibition the following month at the Smithfield Gallery with his good friend and fellow artist Chaw Ei Thein with whom he worked with when living in Rangoon. His life story as a student activist; political prisoner; member of the ABSDF through to where he is today living in London as an artist is totally compelling.

World renowned artist, Ko Htein Lin became involved in the democracy movement in 1988 when he was a student at Rangoon University. At the time of the mass uprisings in 1988 he lead demonstrations in his home town of Mezaligon in the Irrawaddy Delta before being forced to flee to the India-Burma border where he joined the ABSDF. It was at this time that he first studied painting and he illustrated the ABSDF’s publications. In 1992 after being caught up in internal conflict within the ABSDF he fled to China where he was caught and handed back to the military regime. Rather than continue his law studies he decided to work as an artist and comic film actor. In 1998, he was arrested and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment, charged on the basis of an intercepted letter on which his name was listed as a potential activist. In 2004, more than six years and some 200 paintings later he was released from jail. He know lives here in London with his wife and child and has become one of Burma’s foremost artists, exhibiting his work to great acclaim worldwide.

Jump forward two years and here I am in Htein Lin’s small studio in Kennington, SE London sitting down drinking tea and discussing politics. We might as well be in Rangoon. If only. The shoot is great fun and working with a fellow creative mind was always going to be. Of course the only name that could possibly go on Htein Lin’s hand is that of the comedian, actor and his friend – Zarganar. We manage to position his wonderful portrait photograph subtly in the background so in a comical yet tragic kind of way, Zarganar is peering out behind Htein’s shoulder, looking on with a mix of admiration and despair. Emotions that we both share for him as he currently sits in Myitkyina prison having been sentenced to 45 years for his involvement in assisting victims of Cyclone Nargis and speaking out against the military government for their lack of help. So the first person has been photographed for the project outside of the original shots taken at the AAPP office in January. It’s now got a global appeal. Time now to really put some hard work in over the next few months to really try and get this show on the road – a few competition entries would be good and a victory would be just the kick start this project needs… and deserves.

Htein Lin

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