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Kyaw Thu's First Breakout

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

By Shaun Randol

The actor, artist, and activist Kyaw Thu made a splash in New York City over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Curated by Burmese artist collective art@apt (dear friends of The Mantle), "First Break Out," a solo show, featured a wide variety of Thu's work, including still lifes, studies, and works trumpeting messages of peace.

Kyaw Thu (center-left) with artist Aung Zaw Tun (center-right) (photo: Ko Myoe)

Thu is a bit of a rock star in Burma (he's visiting the United States to see family, attend award ceremonies in his honor, and spread messages of peace). While "First Break Out" featured many of his works, Thu has only been painting for just over ten years. Previous to his artistic shift, Thu won Burma Academy Awards for his acting and direction, but what he is most famous (and appreciated) for is his social and activist work. As founder of the Free Funeral Service Society, Thu works tirelessly to provide funeral services for the poor people of Burma.

An outspoken critic of militarism, Thu made sure to thank the Burmese government for making his solo show possible: by granting him permission to travel to the U.S., Thu was allowed to show art that cannot be displayed in his home country.

Below are images I took (with my smart phone) of some of Thu's work:

What I took to be a take on a Buddhist prayer wheel, "Amnesty" (24 x 36, acrylic on canvas) turns out to be an aerial view of a Burmese prison. I can just imagine the panopticon layout below that roof.

 

I'm naturally attracted to patterns, and so this piece (untitled) called me from across the room. The greens, golds, and reds - a not uncommon color scheme in art from the area - drew me in. As I got closer, however, I noticed the piece was dotted with renditions of tiny pagodas.

Notice the pagodas. Cute. Whimsical. All unique. Do they all have a basis in a real pagoda? There are over seven hundred pagodas in Burma, a country that is 90% Buddhist.

 

"Apostate: 88-1" references the student revolution of 1988 (aka "8888"). The single bird that has left the group - flying into new territory - represents the student who has moved beyond the revolution and into political life (Burma recently held democratic elections for certain legislative seats.)

 

"War and Peace" is a mixed media (36 x 24) piece that juxtaposes militant and peaceful images. In this piece, Thu uses symbols of war (tanks, soldiers, barbed wire) to create the image of the dove, a universal symbol of peace.

Thu's technique contrasts with that of fellow Burmese artist Chaw Ei Thein, who is currently working on a camouflage series that takes a militant image (the green-beige squiggly fabric) and co-opts the shapes to form happy images of people doing everyday things.

 

"September" (18 x 24, acrylic on canvas) rests on the back of a saffron-colored robe, an homage to the September 2007 uprising led by Burmese monks.

 

Not all of Thu's work is political. To end this blog post on a lighter note, here's a dramatic piece called "Kiss Me Quick" (24 x 36, acrylic on canvas).

 

Follow Shaun on Twitter @shaunrandol

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Shaun Randol is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Mantle and the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing.