Nestled in the southern Shan State of Myanmar is a hillside town called Kalaw. A place for the summer houses of colonial of cers when the country was under British rule, the town is now painted in saturated images of farmers, crops, and pagodas. Up the Tekkatho Road is a high school housed in a former British army hospital, touting the motto: “The only way to have a thinking school is to be one.” Tourism sites would recommend multiday treks, starting with lunch at an Indian or Nepali restaurant run
by the descendants of railway workers, then to immerse yourself seamlessly into the landscape. All the images of the region are textured with the tonal quality of aged National Geographic issues, with similarly problematic depictions of ethnic minority people embedded in fields and handiwork. The country is the site of the longest-lasting civil war in the world, taking root with the evacuation of British colonial forces in 1948 and punctuated by successive military coups, assassinations, and a regimented death world. In the midst of the pandemic, an artist named Sai, a cultural worker named K, and other unnameable collaborators proposed to the municipality to run Kalaw Contemporary Arts Festival, a bien- nale the first of its kind, with a priority to showcase ethnic minority artists. They used the term “revitalization,” popular to municipal leaders everywhere, and had projects planned throughout the town, notably at the Tudor-inspired redbrick railway station.
It was to take place in April, two months after the military coup that disintegrated this reality. After February 1, 2021, there were no more images of Myanmar.
In Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (2012), Ariella Aïsha Azoulay makes a differentiation between the “event of photography” and the “photographed event,” in which the former relies on the spectator’s eye to identify the event and the latter describes the conditions in which the photograph came into existence.1 A photograph that includes the shadow of the photographer, where the restrictions or accessibility of the angle denote a “disruption,” renders an indexicality to reality that can be read by intentional audiences—those who can see themselves in the violence of the image.
Since the coup, Sai’s father, an elected parliamentarian then appointed as chief minister of Shan State, was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to sixteen years in prison with hard labor, while his mother remains under house arrest. Through a complex negotiation, Sai planned a reverse escape route, and found his way into his mother’s compound, his father’s former o cial residence. He took photographs, made a performance, and shot some video. In Trails of Absence (2021), a series of vignettes unfold over twelve minutes, cut with long black still frames. In the shroud of darkness, we see Sai don his father’s National League for Democracy uniform, immersed in shadows pooling into dark red light. The traces of his father wind through the vines of the wallpaper, into the carved frames of photographs, the nooks of carved-wood armchairs, into the overgrown grassy outside. In one scene, Sai moves with his back toward us to the corner of a room, breathing heavily and with restraint. He forcefully burrows into the corner, using his arms to press his body into a right angle that won’t hold him. Consumed by the night and unheard-of in the video, a screaming rings through our ears.
With less than three months to the opening, Sai and K heard the news that the state counselor (read: de facto prime minister) Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other democratically elected o cials had been detained by the Tatmadaw, or Myanmar’s armed forces. The results of the 2020 general election were annulled. The Assembly of the Union was dissolved. Twenty-four ministers and deputies were deposed. A state of emergency was declared for one year, which extended to two and a half years. Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the Defence Services and senior general took over as state counselor. The death toll has reached ten thousand in some accounts, with hundreds of others sentenced to the death penalty. Many retreated to ethnic territories to train, and later returned to join the People’s Defence Force (PDF), the armed wing of the National Unity Government, seen to be the legitimate and democratically elected body of Myanmar. Formed in May, following the coup during the uprising that quickly ignited into an insurgency, countless young people joined the Forces—artists and cultural work- ers not excluded. A part of the Milk Tea Alliance, a meme- turned-network that evokes the uprisings of Hong Kong in 2019, Thailand in 2020, and Myanmar in 2021, with allies in the Philippines, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan, people in Myanmar have found themselves in a ght to the death. Complex tactical guides were translated from English to Burmese, such as The HK19 Manual, and fundrais- ing for the PDF took over our feeds. The three finnger salute that Thai protesters raised the year before was seen in the streets of Yangon, derived from The Hunger Games to become a symbol of opposition and self-sacrifice. The salute is expressed through an intimate distance. It means the movement has become an uprising, which has become an insurgency, which can become a revolution. In wanting to survive with one’s stakes, it has become necessary to will oneself to the likelihood of assassination.
In order to continue to fight, the conditions that can be accepted during these times do not register for those who live in peaceful places. The repetition in one’s mind is never “This is not the way it should be,” for the space of refusal has evaporated. Rather, it is the various ways in which one can succumb to the violence.
Since the planning of Kalaw Contemporary, com- munication networks between collaborators have been disconnected. While some are on the run—with friends at home afraid to know where the runners have gone and those in exile unable to communicate their positions— others have been disappeared, only to appear again in the news as a corpse. An accounting of this archive of bodies is made disparate across platforms, and each death gar- ners a compendium of a future lost. In search of a life- affirming society, artists and cultural workers become not nameless, but unnameable. As someone from Hong Kong, I came to be in conversation with artists from Myanmar in our complicit contexts and rightfully assumed solidarities. Suspicion haunts those on the outside as much as those on the inside, laden with the effects of a seven- decade-long civil war in which all actions are part of a process of identifying your allies. In these times, it seems all of us have lost lifelong friends to ideology—in Myanmar’s particularity, through cooperation with military cronies—yet the mourning is not just for those friendships but for the world fight to inherit.
In continuation with the early nationalist project of the Union of Burma, the Burmanization e ort under Aung San Suu Kyi sought to make the Burmese a culturally consistent people, forcibly assimilating through policy and genocide the 135 officially registered ethnic groups to become more like the Buddhist majority Burman people. In Burma Down the House, an exhibition curated by Vivian Ziherl at Modka Beiroet in Zutphen, the Netherlands, in November 2021, Sawangwongse Yawnghwe showed a suite of paintings and textile work he made as he watched the insurgency unfold from overseas. One painting titled We want democratization without Burmanization (2021) features a tiger, the symbol of the Shan State, with the slogan “WE WANT DEMOCRACY WITHOUT BURMANIZATION.” Yawnghwe has lived in many places after leaving Myanmar as a kid, from Thailand to Canada, and is now based in the Netherlands. His grandfather Sao Shwe Thaik was the last royal Saopha of Yawnghwe and the first president of the Union of Burma. In the military coup of March 1962 by the Union Revolutionary Council led by General Ne Win, he was arrested and died in prison later that year. Aung San Suu Kyi’s own father, Aung San, was a member of the Thirty Comrades who led an armed resistance to decolonize Burma from the British. Considered the Father of the Nation and cofounder of the Burmese Independence Army, the precursor to Tatmadaw, he was assassinated six months before Independence Day.
Yawnghwe began making paintings of his own father, a military man, only after his death, combing through the archives to make sense of his family history and coming of age in perpetual exile. The trans guration of found photographs by his own hand is akin to the Portraits from Behind, an exhibition of paintings at Gallery Exit by Hong Kong artist Chow Chun Fai, made during the 2019 Be Water Revolution and shown in March the year a er, marking an inability to project past a totalizing present. Now, as Yawnghwe’s mother takes on years, he has painted another series shown at Nova Contemporary in Bangkok titled The Broken White Umbrella. At its core are paintings based on eight archival images from early mid-twentieth-century Burma painted in pale pastels with the same fuzz of old photographs, eclipsed by bands of color. The bands make the edge of the canvas appear hardened, fading the image from our view the closer we step to it. People call each other when they can with news about the most recent military action or assassination attempt; about friends who are being targeted, showing proof of acquaintances who were slipping from town to town; and signs that guerillas had taken over the neighboring abandoned buildings. Family and friends keep breaking the news to one another. Abroad, Yawnghwe can find evidence for this intel in the headlines and clippings in real time, though with different names and faces. For him, this news could be grounded in the aftermath of the 1962 coup, which led to his family’s first exile. Receipts reconciled between decades, suffocating the resistance with brackets drawn in blood. In homage to a protest tactic whereby people hang women’s undergarments on clotheslines across streets, both to block the view of military personnel and to deter them from proceeding (it is believed one’s masculinity will be compromised), he made a textile work titled 22022021, Yawnghwe Office in Exile (2021)—shown at Modka Beiroet, Zutphen (2021), and later at Kathmandu Triennale 2077 (2022)—a recreation of these billowing so blockades, named for the start date of the mass uprising against the coup.
The impulse behind Kalaw Contemporary was to rehearse the potential of a multiethnic state. The biennale was not slated to gather around thematic inquiries but rather the fabric of Myanmar itself, striving to strengthen the practices and discourse of artists there with a focus on ethnic minority artists who have been systematically excluded from the power game—that is, in the middle country that is the Shan State, decentered from the capital Yangon, not led by elite artists who had the privilege of a foreign education, and with an emphasis on sustainability and recovery. An attempt to draw on the legacy of physical architecture and intangible heritage, Kalaw Contemporary was to be the first of an endless cycle of biennials—connecting Burmese artists with discourses abroad, engendering a local arts economy that concerned itself with the nuance of intangible heritage, drawing a continuous timeline through strife, and holding the line. Preliminary plans in- cluded fourteen di erent initiatives, such as artist-curated exhibitions with the canonical genres of video art, perfor- mance, photography, installation, and unusually, culinary arts. The bridge in Kalaw was to be clothed in projections by Myanmar Motion Picture Academy Award–winning director Aung Lwin. The rst screening to inaugurate the Open Cinema Space—a public screening series with a focus on vintage films—was to be One Station Beyond Kalaw (1976). Featured Collectives, a street photography platform and curatorial office founded by C in 2015 was to exhibit a showcase of unknown talent, though since the coup, he has not published any submissions on their website. This picturesque hillside retreat named Kalaw has since become a ghost town, its buildings evacuated and exhibiting no vital signs.
Sun, an experimental video artist scheduled to show at Kalaw Contemporary, scratched away at digital les this year, producing a nearly two-minute-long work called After My Spring (2022). Dense blue mushroom clouds appear to rise from the base of the frame into a nuclear-orange sky. As we watch, a mesh fabric is seen re ected in glass. We see from behind the window an implosion fractured through the prism of the microscopic. Bright colors retreat to dark- ness and a ash of light dances across the surface. Like much of Sai’s photography, the image is taken from behind the window, an illusory protective pane of glass, in the closest semblance to private space that can be found. The ssure of news cycles, guilt of leaving, of feeling weak and crying all the time is expressed from a room with a view. Finding historical bodies in solidarity with our peers, the struggle for self-determination reincarnates in the spirit of numerous people, places, and histories. For the eighth edi tion of Qalandiya International 2016, Ziherl curated the Jerusalem Show VIII: Before and A er Origins, with Al Ma’mal Foundation for Contemporary Art. At the time, Ziherl commissioned a large work on canvas by Yawnghwe that was developed in Al-Quds, or Jerusalem. The 2nd of March 1962, Rangoon, Burma (2016) is an acrylic on canvas measuring over six meters wide and two high. The composition takes a er Goya’s The Third of May 1808 (1814) and Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (1867–68). Napoleon’s soldiers with their riffles aimed at the Spanish resistance are replaced by Tatmadaw soldiers in his family home the night his uncle was assassinated. At the time of the forced Palestinian exile of 1948, the Union of Burma was formed and the civil war began. According to the exhibition attendants, many passersby assumed his painting told a Palestinian story.2
There are multiple timelines that the Kalaw Con- temporary could have made possible—or still may. How do we continue the ethos of leaderless movements when we are all le to make individual decisions? When forced to go underground, how can we build trust without a face? In The Face of Another (1964), Kobo Abe writes: “Unable to suspect others, unable to believe in others, one would have to live in a suspended state, a state of bankrupt human relations, as if one were looking into a mirror that re ects nothing.”3 The artists of Kalaw Contemporary remain unnameable for fear of retaliation, and the nameable have already been im- prisoned. Our hearts have the density of stones dropping into unknown and unforeseeable depths. To have faith in the world we ght to inherit stretches the real conditions that structure Myanmar, yet to not have faith would be far worse. Last year, Sun made Hope (2021), which captures a uorescent red blob with purple and white outlines strug- gling to take form on a black background. A light instrumentation of saung-gauk or Burmese harp plays overhead, of Sun’s own making, that sounds like the break of dawn or medallions of sun dancing on a lightly ruffed lake skin. In our last conversation, Sun repeated to me: “I want to live.”
Hera Chan is a curator and writer based in Amsterdam by way of Hong Kong. She is a current grantee of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, which this text is supported by. With Alvin Li, she is adjunct curator of Greater China, supported by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, at Tate. Formerly, she was co-producer of KomBIJ1 TV leading up to the Dutch Parliament elections in 2021. In Hong Kong, she was associate curator of public pro- grams at Tai Kwun Contemporary and director-curator at Videotage. She has also worked as a researcher and community journalist.
Originally published in Mousse 80