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Risks have never been higher for Myanmar artists under junta's grip

YANGON, Myanmar — Hours before the performance art show was to open to the public, the censors arrived and the grilling began. Under their watchful gaze, the nine artists performed parts of their works, aware that every movement could arouse suspicion.

It is the high-stakes ritual that every public art exhibition must undergo in military-ruled Myanmar — scrutiny by the Ministry of Information's censorship board. Any politics or criticism of the government can close a show and land an artist in jail. So can sexual content.

For Myanmar's small but vibrant arts community, the risks have never been higher. Government censorship has always been a part of life under the junta, but last year, the regime cast a wider net for its critics, jailing hundreds including comedians, writers and musicians.

Saw Wei, a poet, was jailed for two years for publishing a love poem with a hidden message calling the country's top general, Than Shwe, "power crazy." Maung Thura, a comedian who goes by the name Zarganar, is serving a 35-year term for criticizing the government's slow relief effort in last year's cyclone disaster. Zeyar Thaw, a popular hip-hop musician suspected of leading an underground student movement, was sentenced to six years.

For the show's organizer, Moe Satt, the censors' visit made for a nerve-racking morning. All the money and work he had put into coordinating the show could be undone in a single decision. In the end, he grasped the government's official permit with a sense of relief.

"There are many restrictions," he said during an interview days later. "You never know what they are thinking. But I don't confront. I find ways to dialogue with them. I find other ways to do what I want."

The repressive environment is both an obstacle and a galvanizing force for a young, underdeveloped arts scene, said Min, a 46-year-old writer and art critic who wouldn't give his full name.

"Sometimes it's difficult, but difficulty is part of being an artist. To understand what we're doing, you need to understand the present condition of our people. We're not allowed to do as much as we want. But we try to express as much as we can," he said.

Moe Satt's show featured about a dozen artists, three of them Thai or Taiwanese, the rest from Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

A female artist pressed sheets of aluminum foil to her face and to those of audience members to capture a series of facial imprints. A male artist used a huge pile of roses to create a flurry of petals and broken stems.

A woman sat on the floor and sang, her body covered with dozens of small papier-mache stick figures which she would pick up one by one, shaking them ever harder as her singing got louder until she ended with a scream and the figures fell to the floor.

None of the works appeared to touch on politics or sex.

Censorship and repression are major challenges for artists, but so are the lack of resources and limited exposure to a larger art community, said Pamela Blotner, a California-based artist and curator.

"What you have is a lot of energy, a lot of will, a tremendous amount of skill in some. In others, they're really struggling with the lack of education, a lack of perspective," she said.

In 2007 Blotner put together the Burmese-American Art Exchange which displayed works by 12 American and 24 Myanmar artists at an exhibition in Yangon, the country's biggest city, and San Francisco.

Myanmar, a country of 43 million, has only two art schools, so many aspiring artists are either self-taught or else apprentice with a master artist.

"One of the most wonderful things about Burmese artists is how tremendously supportive they are of each other... There is that sense of community. You have older artists taking younger ones under their wing," Blotner said.

That sense of responsibility drives artist Aye Ko, 46, who runs the New Zero Art Space, a gallery for contemporary art created by a collective of about 30 artists. It is among the only places of its kind in Myanmar.

"Modern artists were very isolated before but now they have a place to meet each other and talk about their work. It's easy for artists to come here. Among contemporary artists, there's a united community," he said.

Inside his studio, a spacious duplex in a high-rise, a half-dozen young artists are bent over canvases or casually chatting. A future library of hundreds of art books lies on the floor.

About 100 children and adults attend classes taught three times a week by volunteer artists. The classes, canvas and paint are provided free.

With his bushy eyebrows and long ponytail, Aye Ko cuts a distinctive figure among his students.

"In the year that we've been open, we've had no problem with the censorship board. They see all our shows. We don't want to do the political; my only focus is art," he said.

Aye Ko learned the hard way about the personal costs of crossing the line. During the 1988 pro-democracy protests, he joined in street demonstrations in Yangon and spent three years in prison. He says he emerged a changed man.

"Now my strategy is to choose another way. We need to promote new artists; we need to help the next generation," he said.

Performance artist Moe Satt, 25, regularly travels to festivals throughout Asia but always returns home because he says he too feels obliged to help develop arts in his own country.

Last year he got permission to stage Myanmar's first international performance art festival, but many foreign participants failed to show up because airports in neighboring Thailand were closed by protesters.

Still, he said such festivals are worth the effort, to show foreigners that Myanmar is more than just dictatorship and political prisoners.

"When people think of Myanmar, they only think about (pro-democracy leader) Aung San Suu Kyi and the military junta," he said. "But that's not everything. I wanted to show them the reality of life here."