Master of prison art


Htein Lin was born in Burma in 1966 and has lived in London. He spent six and a half years as a political prisoner from 1998-2004. Although not officially allowed to paint, he secretly managed to complete several hundred paintings on white cotton prison uniforms. He could pay the warders to smuggle paint into the jail, but it was too risky to keep a brush in the cell. So he used whatever objects he could obtain to make a mark – plates, cigarette lighters, nets, syringes, shards of glass or x-rays, razor blades, or just fingers and hands – and developed a monoprint technique.


 Htein Lin continues to use this technique in his recent paintings, which draw on his Theravada Buddhist faith, Burmese traditions and symbols, including his early career as a comedian in Burmese satirical ‘anyeint’ performances and recent events such as the Saffron Revolution and Nargis cyclone.


 Htein Lin pioneered performance art in Burma in 1996 and continued to perform for fellow inmates while in prison. Following his release, his Rangoon street performance ‘Mobile Art Gallery/Mobile Market’ in May 2005 led to 5 more days of interrogation. He has also performed in the UK, Thailand, France, Norway, Finland, at the Venice Biennale in 2007, and at festivals in Finland, Malaysia, Philippines and Japan. His performances draw on his life as an artist, and seek to raise awareness of the political situation in Burma.

Two of Htein Lin’s paintings have been purchased for the new US Embassy in Yangon. Others are in private collections in Belgium, Netherlands, Hong Kong, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, US and UK.

After the uprising in 1988 Htein Lin fled to the Burma-India border and joined the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF). While he was there, he learned to paint under Mandalay artist Sitt Nyein Aye. In 1990, Htein Lin left the border after the Indian government informed the ABSDF that they could not stay on Indian territory if they carried arms. He then traveled to Kachin, in the northern region of Burma near the Chinese border, to join other revolutionaries.

In 1991, the ABSDF imprisoned and tortured him and 80 other students, accusing them of being informers for the regime. Twenty of his comrades were summarily executed or died as a result of torture on February 12, 1992. Htein Lin escaped to China, but his freedom was short-lived as he was caught by the Burmese military government.


Eventually Htein Lin was able to return to Rangoon University and resume his law studies. He and graduated in 1994. Soon after he was introduced to performance art, which was uncommon in Burma at the time. Because of his performances, he was again arrested and sentenced to 7 years in prison.


While his imprisonment was unfortunate, it also allowed him to start a new life, gaining a foothold in the international art world. He painted in prison, using the white cotton uniforms as canvas. In the absence of brushes, he used his fingers, cigarette lighters, syringes, carved soap, and dinner plates to make his marks. Eventually, these prison art paintings were exhibited in Burma and London.

 with input from  The Master of prison art



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