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Burmese Artist Shows Prison Era Creations in London

The southeast Asian nation of Burma is famously secretive. A military government has run the country since the army put down anti-government riots in 1988. The opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi has spent much of the last two decades under house arrest and many of her supporters have been jailed. Among them is artist Htein Lin. He is now based in London where he is exhibiting work created during his years in prison and smuggled out of the country when he left. Suzanne Chislett reports for VOA.

Htein Lin's work includes images of life inside Burma's prisons and his hopes for freedom. The 41-year-old artist spent six years in jail as a political prisoner before a review of his case in 2004 led to his release.

A contemporary artist, known widely in Burma before his detention, Htein Lin says he could not face the prospect of life without expressing himself through art while his comrades outside continued their work.

"I thought they forgot me,” he recalls, “so that is why I really wanted to tell them, 'I am here. Don't forget me.' So that is why I really wanted to do something inside as artist. And then I started to look for how I could I do that without material in the cell."

His ingenuity in managing to create the art works from a prison cell is nothing short of astounding.

"I found some piece of glass, I found some kitchenware. I found a cigarette lighter. I used that. But if I couldn't get the cigarette lighter or something. I can use my body."

Htein Lin used dinner plates, bowls, syringes taken from the hospital wing and cigarette lighter wheels. His canvases were prison uniforms, bedrolls and bamboo mats – many provided from other prisoners who would trade him materials for cigarettes and money. He built up a relationship with some of the guards who would smuggle in paint, and smuggle out his artwork.

One work is a self-portrait with a difference. It shows Htein Lin's face at the base of a peacock -- the symbol of Burma's National League for Democracy party. It won a landslide election in 1990, but the country's military regime prevented the party from taking power.

Htein Lin pressed his face into the bottom of the canvas. He used his feet to create peacock heads; bowls and plates for the feathers. It is his favorite work on display here.

But Htein Lin regards himself as an artist, not a political activist, though he concedes political events can inspire great works.

Another portrait shows Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's National League for Democracy. She has spent 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest.

Htein Lin had no access to photographs during his time in jail. So he asked other inmates for their memories of her appearance and used a needle and thread to create the piece.

On his release from prison in 2004 Htein Lin held small exhibitions of his art in the Burmese capital, Rangoon.

But he said he was warned it could get him into trouble with authorities and eventually his work was brought safely to Europe. "Just some artists and some of my comrades who lived in prison – they are former political prisoners. So I invited them and that was the show – only one day."

Htein Lin's prison artworks are currently being shown at Asia House in London – an organization that works to bridge gaps between western and eastern cultures.