“I may not have been sure about what really did interest me, but I was absolutely sure about what didn’t.”
― Albert Camus, The Stranger
“One must find the source within one’s own Self, one must possess it. Everything else was seeking – a detour, an error.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
Photo by Paw Oo Thet, 3 March 1973. Interior, Lokanat Galleries, Rangoon.
Photo by Paw Oo Thet, 3 March 1973.Rooftop of former portico of Lokanat Galleries, Rangoon.
Black and white photos taken by famed modernist Paw Oo Thet in 1973 reveal, at first glance, portraiture from Japan. In one photo, a man poses in a kimono by a vase of bamboo stalks; behind him a wall of framed paintings hint at his elevated class. In another print, again dressed in a kimono, he stands in a private garden, against a fortified wall, surrounded by flowering trees. On further inspection, anachronisms of time and place emerge. His plastic sandals reflect tropical weather and point to a location far south of Japan and perhaps of less prosperous, more modern times. The foliage hints at Southeast Asia where orchids cling to tree bark and soon the garden bed reveals itself to be the cement floor of a portico rooftop. What once appeared as a lush garden is instead treetops visible from a below, unseen street.
As Burma slipped into a period of isolation under General Ne Win’s Socialist government (1962 – 1988) a package arrived in Rangoon containing a kimono from the artist Khin One’s brother who had followed their Japanese father, once stationed in Burma, to live in Japan. He had sent the kimono as a gift to Khin One, who remained in Burma following the death of their Burmese mother. The arrival of this unexpected and foreign garment captivated the imaginations of artists gathered for an afternoon at Lokanat Galleries in downtown Rangoon. With a simple change of clothes, Maung Theid Dhi found himself transformed into a Japanese gentleman at the hands of Paw Oo Thet and Khin One. The trio spent an afternoon staging Japanese landscapes and personas for a photo session, jumping onto the former portico rooftop at Lokanat Galleries to create the illusion of a walled garden and altering perspective within the gallery to morph the walls, already displaying an existing art exhibit, into an upper-class abode. They permitted only the most necessary of objects into the viewfinder to create this distant world.
Although a kimono crossed seas to reach a small group of like-minded modern artists working in Burma, similar concurrent art movements within postwar Japan appeared not to have infiltrated Burma’s isolationist policies. Maung Theid Dhi recalled never being taught about minimalism or introduced to works by other minimalist artists or groups, such as the earlier Gutai group in Japan (1954-1972) where artists responded to the traumas of war to create works centered on geometry, color, repetition and reduced form. However, in 1972, amid isolationism and fractured ethnic lines within Burma, traumas unique to post-war Burma, Paw Oo Thet taught Maung Theid Dhi how to create artwork with string, simplifying representation of objects to a mere outline of forms. In the same manner that Maung Theid Dhi and his friends transformed their Rangoon environment to something foreign through manipulation of photography, he began to refine his style of painting to include only the most crucial lines and form. His artwork also began to expand outward from the canvas. Soon his two-dimensional paintings extended from canvases to become part of a larger expression affixed to props and even performance.
If Maung Theid Dhi did not have direct access to global art movements dedicated to minimalist principles then a closer look at the socio-political environment in which he operated provides additional clues as to what shaped his artwork. In 1976, four years after he posed in a kimono as a Japanese gentleman, Maung Theid Dhi spent a week in prison for his artwork. In the 1974 Wild Eye Art Exhibition in Yangon, he exhibited “Hunters” (1974), a self-portrait painted on teak wood that he then encircled with a metal chain and capped with a metal star to symbolize oppression by military leaders. The censors banned the worked and removed it from the exhibition on the opening day. When he showed the piece again in 1976, he altered the work by wrapping it in leather and ropes, placing it on an animal skull. This time, the censors arrested him and sentenced him to one week in prison. Upon his release, the censors visited his home on multiple occasions, suspicious that he continued to create political works. In 1988, during a time of political and economic upheaval, he was arrested again out of concern that his art had become critical of the government. In 2000, seeking refuge in Mae Sot, Thailand, he painted portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi and sold them in the local market. Local Thai police arrested him when he refused to pay them bribes and turned him over to Myanmar officials at the border. Without any trial, the officials sentenced him to two and a half years at the notorious Insein prison.
Censorship of the visual arts in Burma presented Maung Theid Dhi with a unique problem of how to operate as an artist in a system where government operatives sought to shape the visual representation of Burmese national identity. In response to the censorship regime around him, whether imposed by the state or self-censorship, the creation of his art became focused on a sensory process. The meditative placement of the string to meticulously create form offered a respite from political and social turmoil. Meanwhile, the use of single colors evoked memories of place and time. By paring down imagery to only the most necessary lines, Maung Theid Dhi rejected realism and focused on emotion while also evading the ubiquitous censors. His repetitive geometric shapes and outlines, reflecting his interest in one-dimensional Burmese painting traditions found in Bagan cave and temple paintings, permitted him to focus on color while the use of string added a tactile element. He retreated from the literal world of realism where censors attempted to use a proscribed code of linking symbols or even colors to reveal acts of political protest by artists. His often empty canvases or sparse portrayal of human form or objects provided the censors with little content to contemplate or decode.
As Maung Theid Dhi developed his own approach to minimalism in isolation from the greater global art community, his style evolved to that of monochromatic paintings based in geometric shapes, often constructed in string, rooted in Burmese Buddhist principles and imagery. Maung Theid Dhi explained his use of string in his work as an expression of Buddhist belief, “Every human being, except Buddha and arahats, lives with strings…everyone is bound by attachments.”In his paintings, as in Buddhism, less is more yet all of mankind is hampered by attachments.
Maung Theid Dhi listed Siddharta by Herman Hesse and The Stranger by Albert Camus as some of the books, borrowed from secret libraries during the Socialist era, that most influenced his worldview and artwork. He cited Hesse’s message of waiting and patience and Camus’ ode to self-determination as resonating with him during years of isolation. In titling his 23-31 July 2016 solo show at Nawaday Tharlar Gallery in Yangon, “………..” Minimal art and Maung Theid Dhi”, he self-labels his artwork as minimalism but also permits viewers to create their own title. He admits that he only became aware of his use of minimalism when someone in recent years defined his art as such. To him, labels are an afterthought. He explained how the format of his artwork evolved, “My heart did not accept using so many colors and complexity…I naturally wanted to create as less as possible to express a point.” For Maung Theid Dhi, art and its application came from an innate need to transfer his emotion and feelings to canvas, and to do so in a manner that navigated the complex political changes of his day. No matter the title of his show or category assigned to his artwork, this style is all his own.