For the first time in over 50 years, art galleries are able to showcase work with political content publicly.
But while censorship of the media has been relaxed, artists and gallery owners are left confused as to what they can and cannot exhibit.
Pre-publication censorship of the media was abolished in August 2102, but there are still restrictions on what can be published. In the art world, a battle is breaking out between artists testing their new freedom, and censors who are uneasy to relinquish their control.
In this environment of ambiguity, protest groups have jumped at the opportunity to spread their message through a new medium.
Myint Soe is a well-known artist who lives just outside of Rangoon. He showed me a painting he was working on in his home studio.
In a room strewn with paints and brushes, there were drawings resting on easels and paintings covering the walls, many unfinished.
In the corner of the room stood a painting of what was undoubtedly the Latpadaung Mountain in central Burma’s Monywa. The now iconic mountain has been the scene of mass protests from local residents calling for a halt to a copper mine project at the foot of the mountain, which is joint owned by the Burmese government and Chinese company Wanbao.
The mine rose to infamy in November 2012, when police cracked down protestors who were occupying the mine. Over 100 monks and villagers were injured; many were rushed to hospital with severe burns. An unofficial investigation led by the Lawyers Network and the US-based Justice Trust found that Burmese riot police had used a military-issue chemical agent, known as white phosphorous, to disperse the protestors. The government denies this.
In Myint Soe’s studio, I looked at the painting, and in its many shades of brown and blue, I see that the curves of the mountain resemble the curves of a women lying on her side.
“They stripped the mountain of her clothes,” said Myint Soe “People protecting her are put in prison.”
Before censorship was relaxed in Burma, paintings such as Myint Soe’s Latpadaung Mountain would have been banned from being displayed because it depicts the struggles of hundreds of residents trying to fight against a government project.
“I am attached to politics. In my paintings, you can see my paintings are political. My style depends on the political and economic situation,” he said.
In Pansodan Gallery in Rangoon, curator Aung Min Soe tells me that though censorship has been relaxed this year, the censorship board still comes to the gallery.
“In reality, they still check what you are doing and how the exhibition goes. We still have to apply to the censorship board to come to the gallery. These routines are still continuing,” he said.
But now, exhibitions dedicated to showing political events are pushing the boundaries.
Myint Soe is showing his painting as part of an exhibition to fundraise for the Latpadaung copper mine protest.
“In the copper mine case, I tried to depict the need under the reality. If all is gone, in this area, there will be bloodshed,” said Myint Soe.
Campaigners in Monywa say that over 7,800 acres of land has been confiscated in the Latpadaung range to make way for the copper mine project. Displaced residents say they have received insufficient compensation and have concerns over the environmental impact of the mine.
While authorities attempted to shut the exhibition down the night before the opening, the event still went ahead.
Aung Min Soe says there is a lot of confusion now as to what is and isn’t permitted.
“They don’t inform us officially. So this is also a problem – we are still confused. Shall we inform them? Or do we still need to get the censorship board to come and check everything?” he asked.
Complete freedom of expression is a long way off in Burma, but there is a larger platform for expression emerging. Those in the art world are testing their new freedom, pushing the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable, as the old regime slowly gives way to reform.
“If we want to avoid, we avoid; if we want test, we test,” said Aung Min Soe.