The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo is hosting a visiting exhibit created by a Burmese artist who, along with hundreds of subjects he has met through his project, are former political prisoners in their homeland. His exhibit, a Show of Hands, features plaster casts of each former prisoner’s hand. Some of them are of individuals who have since settled in Buffalo after spending years as refugees.
Htein Lin recently appeared at the gallery to create new castings and speak before an audience. As he worked on the latest additions to a collection that exceeds 500 plaster hands, he chatted with each subject, sometimes sharing a laugh, as each revealed their personal story of captivity in Burma, now known as Myanmar.
“In 1998 I was arrested in Burma, because I protested against the government for calling for parliament not to move our school,” said Aung Myat Thu, following his casting session. “We protested against government. Me and a handful of students were arrested in 1998, in September.”
In all, thousands were arrested by the military government during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Saw Min Htike Kyaw was also a student who protested the government’s shutdown of his school and also its attempt to reopen it, but separated throughout the country in order to prevent students from easily gathering in assembly and further protest.
He ultimately spent seven years in prison. Others, he explained with the help of an interpreter, were not so lucky.
“The college students were not very fond of the military government. Students have been oppressed. Some have beem killed,” Saw Min Htike Kyaw said. “Such things happened during those times, those years.”
Htein Lin was also a political prisoner. Years after his release, he and other former prisoners held a reunion and at that time, he got the idea to document his peers’ stories and names. He was inspired to use plaster casts following a bicycle accident in which he broke an arm. Plaster, he explained, represents both a delicate substance but also that with which people heal.
“Anything you have physically broken, and then get back strong. It’s health. To get back strong,” he said. “Political prisoners in Myanmar, it’s like that. The country was broken, piece by piece, another civil war, another military regime.”
Human rights remains in question in Myanmar, where the nation’s army is engaged in battles with an insurgency in the nation’s Rakhine State. Caught in crossfire are a people known as Rohingya, an ethnic group residing in Rakhine State, a majority of whom are Muslim. Hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh in 2017 and more recently, according to a UN report, Myanmar’s military have conducted strikes against civilians which “may constitute war crimes.”
Jennifer Foley, Director of Education and Community Engagement for Albright-Knox, first saw A Show of Hands with peers in New York City. They realized it would be an ideal exhibit to bring to Buffalo.
“We know there is a large Burmese community in Buffalo,” she said. “Our hope was that this would be a way we could connect with our community.”
Not just the Burmese community, but the entire Buffalo community.
“This piece, when we were thinking about bringing it here, reallty was connected to the idea that this is part of a Buffalo story,” Foley said. “Here in Buffalo, we not only have a large Burmese community but there are members of that community that have experienced being political prisoners and that is really the focus of this exhibition. of this piece.”
Buffalo’s immigrant and refugee population includes more than 8,300 from Burma who have settled in the city over the past several years. They have established new lives within the US. Aung Myat Thu, who earned a degree from Buffalo State College, will soon move to Maryland to begin a teaching position there.
He does admit, however, that his memories of arrest and imprisonment affect some of his habits in his new homeland.
“Whenever I sleep at home here, I have a lot of worry about the window and the door. I lock and lock. Even after I lock it, I use the shovel against the door,” he said.
Htein Lin praises resettlement programs which, in his words, have made the city alive and rich. He also wants visitors to his exhibit to understand why so many people traveled so many miles to find a new home.
“Because of this project, and other people also come and see, they understand about how these Burmese people, why they are here,” he said.
Saw Min Htike Kyaw explained he is about to earn an associate’s degree in visual communication technology and aspires to become a professional animator. His wife has worked while he has been in school, and he too works multiple jobs while pursuing his studies.
He sees Htein Lin’s Show of Hands, which continues through Sunday, April 28, as a tribute to all who have been oppressed by their governments.
“This is for the whole mankind, who is trying to get equality, equity, and anyone who is trying to step up against the oppress(ive) regime or any system that is trying to oppress,” Saw Min Htike Kyaw said through his interpreter.