Thursday, March 8, 2012

British Ambassador & Burmese Painter: A love story

Htein Lin & Vicky Bowman at their Big Day (2006).
(Vicky Bowman is former British Ambassador to Burma (2002-2006), and previously Second Secretary at the Embassy (1990-1993). Served six years in Brussels (1996-2002) including three years working for Chris Patten. Studied Burmese at SOAS in 1989-1990 with Anna Allott and U Khin (former BBS Deputy Chairman) who gave her her Sunday-born Burmese name, Ohnmar Khin.

She kept up her Burmese language by contributing to the 2nd and 3rd editions of the Lonely Planet Burmese phrasebook and translating many Burmese short stories and poems including Mya Than Tint's 'Tales Of Ordinary People' published by Orchid Press, Bangkok.
Now back in the UK with the Foreign Office and married to Burmese artist Htein Lin, with baby Aurora aka Ar Youn Lin, born in December 2007 and already a regular British Burma Society meeting attender.)

I’ve been thinking of writing about their (Vicky Bowman and Htein Lin) remarkable love story since a few years ago when I first heard of them. But I hardly knew about them and there was none at all written about them too.

But over the years I found bits and pieces of writings about them especially Htein Lin’s former life as a political prisoner and a victim of ABSDF Northern Army. As his fame grows and he becomes the most famous Burmese Abstract Painter I found more and more.

So I translated a few articles written in Burmese, and began this post “British Ambassador and Burmese Painter: A love story” with the translated article from “Moe Cho Thin’s Diary” Blog.

Recycle (by Moe Cho Thin)

I had to clean and tidy up our house yesterday since some close friends are visiting us today. The friends coming are Htein Lin now living in London, his wife Vickie Bowman, and their little daughter Ar-yone-line (Aurora).

Htein Lin is an artist-painter. He truly has a painter in his blood and flesh. When he had been in the military Government’s prison he meaningfully spent most his time inside by secretly drawing his paintings on his and also other prisoners’ jail clothes. We all knew and heard the well-known story of him smuggling out more than 300 of his paintings drawn on the canvas of prison clothes.

Vicky is a former British Ambassador to Burma. Since she loves and studies Burmese literature and Burmese culture she can read and speak Burmese fluently. In early 1990s Vicky translated one of my short stories into English for the book named “Inked Over, Ripped Out” against Burmese censorship by Anna Allot.

I haven’t seen her for over ten years since then. But she doesn’t age and she still is as beautiful as before.

When they visited Los Angeles we all met at our house. Zagana’s family, Some friends from La Organizers Group, and friends from Mandalay Gazette based in LA, all met at our house for quite a long chat. The whole day we ate and we chatted we didn’t even notice the arrival of early evening.

Mainly we were just reminiscing. Stuff way back from the schools. And about the friends we had and we loved. Some have passed away. Some got back-stabbed by our own people during this revolution. Us taking to the jungle, and Htein Lin’s drawing sessions in the prison with what little paints smuggled in from outside, almost everything we still remembered and we still cherished.

Then after a while our artist-painter suddenly went outside and brought back inside a thrown-away small plate of plywood. He wanted to draw a painting for the host. I was so happy and so grateful. I tried to give him a framed canvass to draw on but he said no. 

So the former-political-prisoner-turned-painter in a Pinny top and little sarong squatted on the floor and laid down the plywood and the little bit of ink he had on a small towel also on the floor and began to draw a painting.

For us the way he draws was like reading a poem. We all gathered around him and amazingly watched him work in a total silence.

What he painted was our unforgettable Convocation Hall of Rangoon University, the Judson Tower, and the giant Thitpote Tree. The Gangaw trees even appear to have blooming yellow flowers. Peaceful Inyar Lake has wavelets running on the surface. 

He then told me the painting was inspired by the memories he had of drinking tea and having literary discussions with my father and friends in the canteen at Taungoo Hall of Rangoon University. And I was moved.

When I asked him what was the reason for deliberately using the plywood plate from the rubbish pile he replied that like that piece of rubbish we were pieces of rubbish thrown away by the dictators like useless items. By re-using or recycling that rubbish plywood for a painting it becomes a valuable item. It now represents the lives like ours which have survived the oppressions and now flourished.

He also painted one small painting for Ko Zagnar’s wife Ma Lwin Mar. On another piece of rubbish plywood plate he went out again and brought back. This time the painting was of a traditional Burmese concert (Ah-nyaint). The princess (Min-tha-mee) is dancing happily in the painting. And the joker-clowns (Lu-byet) are beside her. Their big-spotted sarongs are making the painting alive.

But one of the joker-clowns is sitting inside a small window like frame. His head is shaved and the frame is locked. Even locked inside he seemed to be happy and his hands were mimicking the princess as if he is also dancing. Outside, the princess is still dancing and there are flowers in her hair.

Htein Lin was both painting and talking to Ma Lwin Mar and me squatting beside him and   watching him working on the painting. As I looked at the picture of framed bald-clown he became blurred as if the paints were running. He might also be a deliberately-thrown-away piece. But now the painting is a priceless one for us.

My guests had gone back at night. But I am still thinking a lot about the recycle humans like us who have survived whatever oppression thrown at us and still serving the humanity for better as best as we can.

I write about this day down in my diary so that this memory could be recalled anytime when I need it to remember.

Htein Lin’s Biography

(This auto-biography of Htein Lin is mainly from his website.)

Artist Htein Lin.
Htein Lin     was born in 1966 in Mezaligon,  a village north of Henzada in Burma’s northern  Irrawaddy Delta, where his family owned a small sawmill.  He began painting and performing while still at school, and continued at Rangoon University while studying for a law degree, a subject he chose for its performance possibilities. 

In March 1988, he was one of a number of Rangoon University students who were expelled for protesting the authorities’ failure to properly investigate the death of fellow student Phone Maw.  These protests were the first step that led to the ‘democracy spring’ in August/September 1988 that preceded the clampdown by the military that remain in power today.

After leading the protests in Mezaligon during that period, Htein Lin     joined many other activists and fled to the Indian border where he joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABDSF).  While in exile he studied painting for a couple of months under Mandalay artist Sitt Nyein Aye, and illustrated the ABSDF’s publications.  

In 1990 the Indian government informed the ABSDF that they could no longer stay on Indian territory if they carried arms.  Htein Lin     left for an ABSDF camp inside Burma which was shortly afterwards overrun by the Burmese army. Carrying a typewriter, Htein Lin     crossed the jungles of Northern Burma to join their comrades in Kachin State on the Chinese border, using a stick to draw in the mud during breaks in the journey.

Rangoon University's Convocation Hall.
Only about twenty of them survived the journey. In late 1991, he was caught up in the internal conflicts in the ABSDF and along with 80 fellow students he was imprisoned and tortured for allegedly being an informer.  Some 20 of his comrades were summarily executed on 12 February 1992 or died from torture. 

The others were kept in captivity for seven months, until they escaped to China, where they were caught and handed back to the Burmese military government.  They were permitted to officially ‘surrender’ and Htein Lin     resumed his L.L.B. law course, graduating in 1994.

Rather than continue in law, he worked as an artist and comic film actor, and pioneered modern performance art in Burma with ‘The Little Worm in the Ear’, a street performance in downtown Yangon (1996) and ‘Guitarist’ (1996).   His first solo exhibitions were held in 1996 and 1997 in Rangoon (Yangon) and he participated in several group shows.

In 1998, he was arrested and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment, charged on the basis of an intercepted  letter from an erstwhile 'comrade' which listed names of those to be contacted to see if they were still interested in opposition activity. He was unaware of the letter until his arrest.

After sentence, he was transferred to Mandalay Jail, where he was forced to improvise to continue painting. Using the white cotton prison uniform as a canvas, he paid for paints to be smuggled into the jail. In the absence of brushes, he used his fingers, cigarette lighters, syringes, carved soap, and dinner plates to make his mark.   In Mandalay he performed a piece ‘0 + 0 + 0 = 0’  (1999) for the amusement of his fellow prisoners.

Htein Lin just out of Myaung Mya Jail.
Conditions in Mandalay jail were particularly harsh, and in 2000 political prisoners in protested for better conditions, including in Htein Lin’s case, the right to paint.  The protesters were beaten and dispersed to other jails and he was sent to Myaungmya in the Irrawaddy Delta, a small town where George Orwell spent three miserable months on his first posting as a colonial police officer. 

Htein Lin     was punished with seven months spent in solitary confinement on death row in the jail, built by the British in 1900. Happily conditions in Myaungmya were not as bad as Mandalay for most of the time, and it was not far from his hometown. Once out of solitary he continued to paint, using the same techniques and materials he had developed in Mandalay.  He also developed three more performances ‘The Fly’ (2001), ‘Cleaner’ (2002) and ‘Life’ (2003).

In November 2004, six and a half years into his sentence and over 200 paintings later, he was released.  The authorities informed him that, following a review of the files after the arrest of the Prime Minister General Khin Nyunt and most of his Military Intelligence team, they concluded that there had been no case against him (as Htein Lin     had always maintained).

Htein Lin     returned to Rangoon, and returned to painting, continuing with the ‘Other World’ series, large paintings on the cotton cloth he had grown used to using as a canvas.

After his release from prison in 2004, he was homeless for a while. The British Ambassador in Yangon, Victoria Bowman (Vicky), took him in and took care of his priceless paintings and ensured their preservation by loaning them to the Burma Archives Project at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. They fell in love and married in 2006. Vicky joked later in an interview that as well as looking after the paintings she looked after the painter as well. 

In June 2005, he briefly exhibited a selection of his prison paintings, in his 3rd solo show entitled 00235, named after his prisoner number from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) who visited Mandalay and Myaungmya jails while he was there.

His 4th solo show ‘Recycled’ in December 2005, in Lokanat Gallery included the four ‘Other World’ paintings and 16 paintings on recycled cardboard. It was accompanied by a daily performance ‘Standstill’, comprising four hours of standing meditation in sympathy with those who are unable to move because of disability, or for other reasons. His 5th Solo Show, ‘Come Rain or Shine’, at River Gallery, Strand Hotel in June 2006 included three huge canvases, and nine painted monk’s umbrellas, amongst other recent works.

In May 2005, Htein Lin  and fellow performer Chaw Ei Thein and three others were detained for five days for questioning following the street performance ‘Mobile Art Gallery and Mobile Market’ in downtown Rangoon.   In September 2005 he performed ‘The Fly’ at the Alliance Francaise, Rangoon; followed later by Rangoon performances of ‘On the Table’ and ‘Artist’s Life’ with Chaw Ei Thein, and ‘We have arrived in the world’, a group performance. 

Htein Lin     attended the Nippon Performing Arts Festival in July 2006, and was an Artist in Residence at Rimbun Dahan  near Kuala Lumpur in Dec 2006/January 2007  conducting performance art and printmaking workshops in KL and Chiang Mai in early 2007.

He attended Tupada Arts and Media Action (TAMA07) performance art festival in Manila in April 2007, the collateral event Migration Addicts, Urban Interventions at the 52nd Venice Biennale (June 2007) and Asia-Europe Mediations at the National Museum of Poznan, Poland (July 2007).

His performance 'Yes or No' in Chiang Mai in March 2008 addressed the referendum in Burma, and since Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in May 2008, he has held street performances in London, Paris, Bergen, Oslo and Norway to raise awareness.

His work from prison was shown at Asia House (London) in 2007.  He has had exhibitions in Thailand, Hong Kong, Bath (UK), London and Turin in 2008.  Two of his paintings have been purchased for the new US Embassy in Yangon.  Others are in Belgium, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Romania, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, US and UK.

Thit-pote-pin, Rangoon University.
He is currently working out of London, and in addition to art and performance, he continues to contribute writing and illustrations to magazines back in Burma. He was a member of the selection panel for the first Freedom to Create prize , results announced December 2008 and will be a judge for the Koestler Trust prison arts competition in 2010.

Htein Lin sees himself as an artist, not a political activist. But while he regards art used in the service of politics as something that insults the value of both, he believes political events can inspire art, and those events can sometimes even swallow up an artist. When the artist emerges, he will be changed by the experience, and thereby become the painting, and no longer the painter.

British Envoy’s Constructive Engagement

(This lite-hearted news of their marriage was from May 2006 Irrawaddy Magazine.)

A love story competed with such current news as a new bird flu outbreak in Burma and the latest showbiz gossip as April’s hottest topic of Rangoon teashop speculation. Apart from reportedly also echoing through the country’s new corridors of power in Pyinmana, the word spread to diplomatic dinner tables, setting Rangoon’s foreign community network humming.

The burning question was whether or not a marriage had taken place between British Ambassador to Rangoon Vicky Bowman and leading Burmese abstract artist Htein Lin. The rumor mill was fuelled by reports that Burmese-speaking Vicky, and Htein Lin, both 39, had held a donation ceremony at a monastery in his home town of Mezaligon, Irrawaddy Division. This was previously known as the birthplace of anti-colonial era student leader Bo Aung Kyaw.

Had the ceremony in fact been a “secret” wedding—maybe with British Special Branch agents keeping an eye on guests, and a clutch of photographers there to take the official photos?

Or was this just another “happening” organized by Htein Lin, one of Burma’s most prominent performance artists?

While it appears, as we go to press, that congratulations are premature, The Irrawaddy wishes the happy couple well, and we expect to be invited to the wedding when it finally does take place.

(Following video is Vicky Bowman's Speech in Burmese at London Mon National Day.)

When I was a Human Stereo by Htein Lin