Burmese artist lectures on his time in prison

Htein Lin discusses his art with a member of the audience. (Photo by Bryce Tuggle)

On Oct. 4 2012, Burmese artist and former political prisoner Htein Lin delivered a lecture to an audience of students, staff and faculty members in the Recital Hall of the Albert Simons Center for the Arts.  The lecture began at 6:30 and was sponsored by the Department of Art History.

Mary Beth Heston, Director of Asian Studies, introduced Lin, whose work she originally saw at an exhibition in 2009.  Heston said, “I was struck not only by the works themselves, but also the way by which the art served as witness to the situation in Burma and [Lin’s] commitment to make known information that was suppressed even within his own society.”

Heston was referring to the art Lin created while in prison that was representative of the hardships he and other prisoners, as well as

the common people of Burma, suffered under the military regime.

In 1985, Lin attended Rangoon University as a law student and had his first run-in with the cops in 1988 when he participated in a protest after the death of a fellow student went uninvestigated by the Burmese police.  He was expelled from Rangoon and fled to the Indian border, where he joined a group of Burmese activists protesting the military regime.

After fleeing to the Indian border and serving 7 months in prison for his work as an activist, Lin graduated in 1994 with a law degree.  Despite his education, Lin worked as an artist from 1994 to 1998.  He was arrested and imprisoned for 7 years after a letter was intercepted listing him as a potential participant for rebellion against the Burmese military and political leaders.  Lin was unaware of the letter until his arrest.

Lin's art, currently on display in the Halsey, depicts the position the prisoners were forced to take in jail. (Photo by Bryce Tuggle)

As Lin spoke of his time in prison, slides of the work he created were projected behind him.  He was forced to improvise in creating his art, using his white jail uniform as canvas, bribing prison guards to bring him paints and replacing the standard paintbrush (it was too dangerous to keep one in his cell, as painting was prohibited) with things such as syringes, carved soap and cigarette lighters.

Lin said, “In prison, you just had to learn to live.  There were no books, no paper and no painting.  You just had to live.”

He was released six and a half years into his sentence, as authorities had reviewed his arrest and ruled that there had been no case against him.  He had created over 200 paintings in jail depicting the corrupt military regime and poor living conditions of life in a cell.

Finally, Lin spoke of his family, who live with him in exile in England and showed pictures of his current art projects.  He answered questions from audience members, and a reception followed in the Halsey Institute, where one of Lin’s paintings was put on display.

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