Back when I was finding my bearings while writing on contemporory art in Saigon, an artist and RMIT faculty member named Richard Streitmatter-Tran was one of my most informative and generous contacts. During my last interview with Rich, he touched on an aspect of his life we hadn’t spoken about in our previous conversations: his wife, the Burmese artist and political asylee, Chaw Ei Thein.
So when I received an email notification from the Asian American Writers’ Workshop that Chaw Ei would be performing and speaking at their 27th Street space, I marked my calendar.
I arrived to find the chairs arranged around a curious performance space comrpised of a toy motorcycle, a model airplane, a bed of stones, a bowl of rice, and a bucket of water. As the evening began, Chaw Ei emerged from a back office, her face obscured by a black detention hood, ambling in a rigged, pained march that recalled butoh. At the motorcycle, she raised her arms in front of her and squatted, as if riding an imaginary bike. Then, at the airplane, she stood on one leg with arms stretched out to her side, again seemingly simulating transport. Next, she kneeled on the stones and ate from the bowl of rice, her arms behind her back. As she crawled forward to the bucket, I thought she might drink from it. Instead, she submerged her face, as if being drowned by a phantom assailant.
Performance photos courtesy of Jonathan Hulland
Afterwards, during a discussion led by Todd Lester, founder of event co-sponsor freeDimensional, Chaw Ei spoke about her belief that all Burmese have a responsibility to do what they can to fight for freedom. As a political asylee unable to contribute directly, performance has become Chaw Ei’s contribution.
The performance, in fact, is a quite literal expression of torture in Burmese prions: the motorbike and airplane simulations mirror stress positions prisoners are made to endure, while eating from the rice bowl expresses the humiliation tied to even the most basic human necessity of sustence. The drowning requires no explanation. Through this visceral and disturbing art piece, Chaw Ei raises awareness of the more than 2,000 political prisoners currently being detained and tortured in Burma. In the photos above, you can see representations of them meticulously scrawled on her face, arms, and legs.
Chaw Ei herself has spent time in a Burmese prison. She described a performance in which she and collaborator Htein Lin sold items on the street pegged to the old currency, a means of calling out the rapid inflation caused by the Burmese junta’s devastating monetary policy. The authorities were not amused; they locked up Chaw Ei and Htein for a brief period.
She also touched on September Sweetness, a collaborative project from the 2008 Singapore Biennale that I’d seen in materials Rich had given me. The project encompassed a 5.5-tonnes sculpture of a Buddhist temple, inspired by a photograph of a decaying temple in Burma’s Bagan region. Once completed, the impressive piece, which was completed with the help of more than a dozen volunteers, was left in the humid open air to melt. Chaw Ei mentioned that the project reflected the Buddhist concept of impermanence, but it is also open to interpretation. Among many things, one can read into it the state of decay Burma has long suffered, reflected by the actual decay of its architectural heritage.
In as far as it sought to raise awareness, the event was a success. After Chaw Ei’s performance and Todd Lester’s interview, many in the audience were eager to hear Chaw Ei’s feelings on the current political situation in Burma and find out how they could better inform themselves. I would strongly urge anyone interested in these issues to support the work of freeDimensional and event co-sponsor, the World Policy Institute. Through freeDimensional, Chaw Ei and other artists have been able to secure positions in New York Foundation for the Arts’ Immigrant Artists Program.
More about the artist:
CHAW EI THEIN (b. 1969, Yangon, Myanmar) is a painter and performance artist currently based in New York. Chaw ei was selected for the New York Foundation for the Arts Mentoring Program for Immigrants Artists through a partnership with freeDimensional. Her work has been widely covered in the international arts press including Asian Art Now, Asian Art Achieve, Artforum, Art Asia Pacific, Yishu, C-Arts, The Strait Times and The New York Times. In addition to her work as an artist, she is also co-founder and Director of the Sunflower Art Gallery in Yangon. In this capacity she has developed several initiatives including the organizing of art exhibitions and fairs including special exhibitions for children’s art in Myanmar and Cambodia, and for psychiatric patients. She has been teaching art to children for more than 15 years and served as Editor for a youth magazine in Yangon. As an advocate for art, education, and creative expression, she has been a vocal critic of the restrictive curricula in Burma. Currently living in New York, she has exhibited new works at the Point B Gallery, Da Gallery, Fardom Gallery, Puffin Room, SoapBox Gallery, United Nations Plaza and the International Studio and Curatorial Programme (ISCP) Open Studios, Grace Exhibition Art Space in United States. Her website is www.chaweithein.blogspot.com.